RINGING IN THE NEW YEAR AT THE LARGEST FIESTA IN THE WORLD:
RIO DE JANEIRO & PARATY, BRAZIL, Dec. 28, 2018 – Jan. 6, 2019
(All photos are by the author unless otherwise credited. Click on a photo to enlarge it and read the caption and use your arrows to scroll through each series of photos).
This is not a usual Travel Talk post since I have been to Brazil many times before and had no intention of revisiting the many tourist attractions in one of the most physically beautiful cities in the world. I spent several months in Rio on a sabbatical leave in 1984, visited over a dozen other cities on a Varig Air pass, then returned to Rio twice more and repeated visits to Fortaleza and Sao Paulo a few years ago. There were three motives for this visit: first, reveling in what Cariocas insist is the largest New Year fiesta in the world, capped off with the largest fireworks show in the world; finally getting to visit the colonial beach town of Paraty; and to keep up my Portuguese language skills after investing hundreds of hours in that endeavor over the years. Use it or lose it.
I honestly think everyone should travel to Brazil at least once, but NOT during the New Year, the February Carnival, or Holy Week. During those times there are long lines at almost all tourist spots and the beaches are so crowded one has a problem finding space to put down a towel and raise an umbrella. Hotel rates in Copacabana and Ipanema go up by a third or more. I knew all that but I had dreamed about a huge splurge at the Copacabana Palace, hobnobbing with the Hollywood crowd and jet setters. Alas window rooms facing the beach were sold out months before I inquired, and the rate for an interior room was 1025 USD a night plus taxes. The hotel party there cost 880 dollars per person plus tip. At those prices, the choice of three six-course dinners and three orchestras to choose from did not tempt me. Instead, I was lucky to find a beach-front room at the nearby JW Marriott closer to my budget limits. I had no idea when I booked that the Marriott hosted one of the best parties and that the best view of the fireworks (other than being on the sand with two million people) was right in front of the hotel, prominently placed on Avenida Atlantica, the beach-front boulevard.
There are lots of flight options to Rio from U.S. airports, somewhat fewer from Mexico, but I found a reasonable business-class flight from Mexico City with a short layover in Panama City, Panama (PTY) on Copa, a member of the Star Alliance. Check-in was fast and friendly and I had access to the Copa lounge, but I preferred the American Express Centurion Club because it was much closer to my gate. The 3 ½ hour flight to Panama included a nice hot lunch and generous pours of one’s favorite beverage. Unlike some layover airports, travelers in transit go right to their next gate with no passport or immigration controls. The Copa VIP club is very crowded but offers good internet service and is close to almost all gates. The flight to Rio took 6 hours 40 minutes, so the total time in transit is like going to Italy from JFK.
A brief geography lesson: Lima Peru on the west coast of South America is directly south of Boston; Rio is one of the most eastern cities in South America, 3774 km or 2345 miles from Lima and 3 time zones earlier than NY. It is south of the Equator so January is the height of summer and one of the hottest months. I recommend travel there during the U.S. fall, Brazil’s spring.
The Marriott offered airport car pickup for over 100 dollars, but a web search told me that the public, fixed-rate taxis at the Rio airport charge about 35 dollars for the 40 minute ride to Copacabana, and I got a cab almost immediately. The Brazilian real (plural reais) hovered around 3.8 to the dollar during most of my stay but the real went up a bit against the dollar after the January 1 inauguration of the new president. Bankers seem to prefer right-wing governments. On my previous trip six years ago the exchange was about 2.50 reais to the dollar; meanwhile the Brazilian economy had been hit by a severe recession for the last few years and was just starting to recover, so prices in dollars were a great bargain compared to previous trips, except for hotel rooms that have always been overpriced in Rio due to demand. There is no ATM in the baggage claim area, but at the far left end of the lobby, about 75 meters, are several ATMs whose rates are always better than the exchange houses.
My room in the Marriott was not ready at 9:30 am which I had anticipated by putting a bathing suit and sandals in my carryon bag. I spent the time at the roof-top lounge/bar/pool and had a sandwich there and internet access. When reserving at any Marriott, take out membership before arrival to get free internet. Alas the pool is too shallow for water aerobics which I would have enjoyed after sitting for so long, but it was refreshing given temperature in the 90s F.
Luckily my room was ready two hours before the posted 3 pm check-in. After a nap and shower I went out for a walk to orient myself to the area around the hotel. I found an unremarkable dinner spot next to the hotel, La Maison, and saved those a cab ride away for another time. After dinner I went to the roof bar and had a huge caipirinha which was delicious but it took 3 heaping table- spoons of sugar to sweeten the large chunks of lime and lime juice. The drink is made with cachaca, a sugar-cane liquor like aguardiente in Colombia, not quite as processed as rum. After the long overnight flight I was happy to rest up with a novel and get an early start the next day.
The hotel’s generous buffet breakfast includes an egg station, lots of fruit, cold cuts, cheeses, and pastries. I need at least 90 minutes after that for personal plumbing before venturing out. I flagged a metered taxi near the hotel and was delighted that I could comprehend most of the driver’s heavy Carioca accent. On the way to the Jardim Botánico, we chatted about my Jan. 2 plans for Paraty. The hotel wanted about 325 dollars one way; Francisco said he’d do it for 500 reais, about 131 dollars, so we set a date and he gave me his cell number to confirm the night before.
The botanical garden is one of Rio’s most attractive tourist sites along with Corcovado (the Christ the Redeemer statue) and Pao de Azucar (Sugar Loaf mountain) which I had no intention to revisit. I had never seen the garden in January and I was pleased at the huge selection of flowers, flowering trees and bushes, orchids and bromeliads. I got the senior discount, 50 percent off the 15 reais entrance fee. One could spend a long time taking in the 54 hectare garden, almost 135 acres. The maps and signage on the trails are excellent and it is easy to find the cactus garden and the orchid and the bromeliad green houses. It was wonderful to see so many families with young children, and not that many tourists since most of those don’t go to Rio for flowers. I saw only a handful of the 140 species of birds and never saw any of the capuchin monkeys. There are lunch spots or one can pack a sandwich and just buy a beverage. I highly recommend it as one of the top spots for visitors, and I thoroughly enjoyed my revisit.
Given the huge breakfast buffet, I found I could get by with light lunches at local cafés where menus are posted outside. I found a rather grungy café one a block from the hotel, filled with Brazilians rather than tourists, and had several lunches there. I saved the nicer restaurants for evenings. My favorite is upscale Satyricon in Ipanema, and I foolishly thought I could get a last minute reservation on a Saturday night in high season. The wait list was so long they could not give me an idea when I might get in, so I reserved early for the following evening. The concierge recommended Don Camillo, three blocks from the hotel with both indoor and outdoor seating. While not inexpensive, prices were reasonable enough and service quite good, so I returned there for another lunch and a dinner later in the week. (Avenida Atlantica 3506, Copacabana, doncamillo.com.br.) My Sunday night reservation at Satyricon was all I had hoped for, though I had never experienced high season traffic. I had a 7 pm reservation since restaurants get really crowded after 8 pm. But the normal 12-minute cab ride to Ipanema took 45 minutes in bumper to bumper traffic and I arrived late. Other diners probably had the same delays and there was plenty of room for me. Satyricon is a fine-dining splurge specializing in Italian seafood. I enjoyed a generous plate of tender mussels in garlic broth, and two enormous tails of Lobster Thermidor that I could barely finish. (Rua Barao da Torre 192, Ipanama, satyricon.com.br). I had a list of other fine-dining venues but stayed within walking distance of the hotel the other evenings.
MUSEO DE AMANHA (MUSEUM OF TOMORROW)
Other than the botanical garden, my only other tourist goal was to see a new museum built for the 2016 Summer Olympic games. The Museum of Tomorrow (Museo de Amanha) is located downtown near the main port for arriving cruise ships. The spectacular building housing a science collection was designed by Spain’s famous architect Santiago Calatrava. Due to heavy traffic and distance, the long cab drive took 45 minutes, and I arrived to find a huge line of about 100 meters long, probably an hour’s wait in the brutally hot sun. It didn’t help that three large cruise ships were in port, docked nearby the museum. Fortunately I had visited Calatrava’s science museum in Valencia, Spain many years ago and decided I could skip this one, so I just walked around taking photos of the impressive architecture, the adjacent naval base, and local fishermen. https://museudoamanha.org.br/en.
THE DOWNSIDE OF RIO IN HIGH SEASON
NEW YEAR’S EVE
With the mobs of tourists I had no wish to explore other museums nor fry on the beach that was more crowded than I had ever seen it. Beaches are not good spots for solo travelers, especially in Brazil where one needs someone to watch your towel and belongings while you swim. Petty theft is endemic on the beaches. In anticipation of a great evening I just hung out at the hotel, had a nice lunch nearby, caught up on web news in Brazil, Mexico, and the U.S., and enjoyed a nice 90-minute siesta to prepare for a late night.
The Marriott had two parties, one in the dining room and one on the roof top, with unlimited national beverages and champagne for 500 to 600 dollars per person. The orchestras for dance don’t appeal to solo travelers. Thanks to being on many web lists for travel events, I learned that a local group had booked a private party in the basement ballroom and the cost was a more reasonable 600 reais, about 158 dollars, to include a buffet dinner, three DJs for dance music, unlimited Tanqueray gin tonic, imported and local beers, caiparinhas, red and white wine, and champagne (I didn’t read the label) from 9 pm to 4 am. I wasn’t going to subscribe to Pay Pal for one event and took a chance on getting a reservation after my arrival. Had I not been successful I was prepared to skip the fiestas and just cuddle up with Johnny Walker to watch the fireworks. But I was in luck and I could even pay with my Visa card at a desk in the hotel two days before the event.
All day my anticipation grew as I watched more and more people arriving in Copacabana for what is billed as the largest New Year’s Eve fiesta in the world. Roads into Copacabana closed at 7:30 pm and limited metro tickets had to be bought online in advance. Between the beach and the scores of hotels, crowd estimates were for two million people. My hotel closed access after 6 pm except for guests with a bracelet. Stages were set up along the beach for various live bands. From my room window I could see ten long fire-works barges off-shore over the five- kilometers of beach, and by dusk five cruise ships positioned off the coast to give their passengers a thrilling view of the show.
I dressed in Cuernavaca-style fancy casual and descended to the party a little after 9 pm. I had expected a very late-supper buffet. but the staff were already setting up hot trays for fancy canapés. Since 300 guests were expected, I understood why there was no sit-down dinner, and the snack trays were constantly refilled. I especially liked the little hot doughballs stuffed with rice and shrimp. I started out with gin tonic, switched to top-shelf beer for dining, and ended up with the sparkling wine. The music was very pleasant international disco tunes and the volume was tolerable, but loud enough to make for difficult conversation without shouting. Not that youngsters were lining up to converse with the oldest person in the room; but I did enjoy some chats with Brazilians and a couple from London. It was great fun watching young people having a delightful time, and I couldn’t resist using my cell-phone camera to capture some pics of the diverse crowd. And diverse it was. Racial mixing has produced, to my mind, one of the most beautiful people in the world. I will never forget my first visit when I was struck by a mulatta with turquoise eyes. There were several gender-bending men and women, straight and gay couples, mixed-race couples, but just one old white American. Many of the women were dressed provocatively, but most men wore shorts and a few were dressed so slovenly you’d think they were Americans.
At 11:50 guests poured from the ballroom to the front of the hotel to an area that had been barricaded and reserved exclusively for guests, and tables were laden with bottles of champagne. The fireworks show was all I had hoped for with hundreds if not thousands of bursts per minute for 15 minutes. I had been told it would last for half an hour, but I doubt anyone wanted any more when the spectacle ended. The fiesta and fireworks were all I could have wished for and I was enthralled. I went back to the party until 1:45, reveling in having participated in one of the greatest shows on earth. But If I ever do it again, it will have to be when I’m old and watching the fireworks with other geezers from the deck of a cruise ship.
HAPPY NEW YEAR, 2019
You can fast forward this youtube video of the show which no single photo can match. Or open youtube and type in the search box New Year’s Eve Rio de Janeiro for even more videos.
My favorite single photo is this one from CNN.com on January 1.
Many Brazilians I had talked to on previous trips had raved about the beauty of Paraty, a 17th century colonial city on a beautiful Atlantic bay. Founded in 1597, it didn’t get well populated until the 1696 discovery of gold in the mountains of Minas Gerais state. A gold trail was hacked out for mule trains bringing in slaves and supplies and taking out gold until the mines declined in the late 18th century. By the early 19th century it was a boom town for coffee production and export. About the same time it experienced a third boom in the production of cachaca. After a highway was built in the 1970s, it had a fourth boom, tourism, which remains vibrant today. It’s about a 4 ½ hour drive from Rio and a bit less from Sao Paulo, depending on traffic and possible construction delays.
I delayed my exit from Rio until January 2, assuming there would be a huge exodus on the first. My driver Francisco arrived early for the 10:30 am departure; no point in going too early since the room wouldn’t be ready early. Leaving Rio, the scenery is like leaving Chicago via Gary Indiana or leaving Buffalo via Lackawana. Only after two hours did we start to see coastal villages and hundreds of islands in the Atlantic. With a construction delay it took all of 4 ½ hours to get to the hotel. Poor Francisco said he had an even longer trip back to Rio and didn’t get home until 9 pm. But he was happy to reserve my return trip to Rio January 5, rather than cruise around the city for small fares.
The Pousada do Ouro is a charming boutique hotel with a front door near the main square and a back door facing the harbor parking lot. The well-maintained pool is surrounded by a tropical garden boasting orchids, heliconia, and ginger, with lots of bromeliads in the hallways. Alas, the pool is not deep enough for water aerobics, my usual way of staying fit while traveling. The hotel bar offers a decent selection of sandwiches in addition to Italian-style plates. A block and a half from the hotel are several restaurants around the main plaza. I did not plan on dining anywhere I couldn’t walk to, and had no problem finding decent meals. The pousada rates include a small but adequate buffet breakfast (www.pousadaouro.com.br).
I was glad I had read an article recommending the historical walking tour for one’s first day, which I did. English and Portuguese-language groups leave from the main plaza daily at 10:30 am, except Wednesday when it’s Portuguese only. While advertised as free, a tip is solicited and generosity appreciated. My guide was born in Argentina but had been in Paraty 22 years and had studied Brazilian history as part of his guide licensing. I suspect he was too long winded for some of the group, but it was a nice review for me since I had taken a college course on Brazilian history about 1967.
The streets of the city are not cobbled but rather semi-paved with enormous stones that are often round and slippery or sharp and ragged, so one has to keep looking down. I can’t imagine how the poor horses that draw the tourist buggies manage on these streets, and I was amazed how young people managed with just flip flops, the main footware for 90 percent of tourists. By late morning the heat was intense and my shirt stuck to my body. There was no rest stop so I was glad we finished near the hotel.
The hotel recommends the Italian restaurant Punto Divino, a block away, but it gets crowded early with a wait to get in. I enjoyed my dinner there but preferred another Italian restaurant, Dolce Vita, a few blocks further from the square (Rua do Comércio 315, Centro Histórico; no website; see facebook). Across the street is a sorvete shop, ice cream similar to Italian gelato. They offered no U.S.-style cones, but you could scoop your desired flavor into paper cartons of different sizes to be weighed to determine price. I found it a pleasant way to end an evening eating my sorvete on a park bench in the square and listening to the music coming out of the adjacent bars. Back at the hotel, the young barmen, looking to be in their 20s, were kind enough to compliment me on my Portuguese and send me off with ice for a Glenfiddich nightcap in my room
CRUISING PARATY BAY
Other than beach hopping, adventure tours of the jungle, and water sports like kayaking, there isn’t a lot more to do in Paraty. Frankly, I recommend it for honeymooners but not for solo travelers. I did want to do a recommended boat tour on Paraty Bay. Large boats take groups of up to 100 passengers out on the bay for four hours, stopping at a beach, including refreshments and loud music. I preferred a solo trip on a small boat but worried about personal safety. The hotel manager, Isabela Moreira, was one of the most attentive and thoughtful hotel staffers I have met in my travels, and her English is much better than my Portuguese. She told me she would look into a boatman who has worked with hotel clients in the past, and within an hour she had booked me with a reliable service for 150 reais an hour. I booked two hours, less than 80 dollars for an exclusive excursion with someone known to the hotel. Roque came to the hotel, just a few blocks from the pier, and took me to his boat where I met his first mate Ignacio, his 9-year old son on school break. Like all days since my arrival, temperatures were in the 90s (45 C) but the canvas canopy helped and there were nice breezes at times. Roque had cachaca and vodka aboard but I was happy with two bottles of water from the cooler. I sat on the top deck from 10:40 to 12:45, with Roque sticking his head up every now and then to identify an island or name the owner of one of the lavish beach-front estates. I was more than satisfied with my cruise and thanked Isabela for recommending it.
Despite two bottles of water, I was sweating and dehydrated when I got back to the hotel and appreciated the excellent airconditioning in my room. I rested up, caught up on my notes, and posted my photos to Facebook before returning to Dolce Vita for a fish fillet in a Sicilian-style lemon sauce. After my sorvete I took some night photos of the nearby streets before retreating to my room with lightning flashes warning of the heavy shower than arrived soon after.
Last night in Ipanema.
With a 12:30 pm flight home the next day, I decided it was wise to spend the night back in Rio to be near the airport, and I wanted one night in Ipanema where I had enjoyed many pleasant times on past trips. Francisco surprised me by arriving early; he had come the night before. It was an uneventful ride back to Rio but took 4 ½ hours again. Checking in at 3 pm at the Hotel Sol Ipanema, reception claimed my reservation by booking.com had been cancelled, whose error I don’t know, but they found me a room in the category I had booked after a half-hour delay due a slow system. It was already late so I had lunch in the hotel’s expensive restaurant. I hoped a spell in the roof top pool would take some of the curves out of the highway, but I hadn’t researched the hotel photos sufficiently. The deck would hold only about ten people and the pool was just larger than a jacuzzi with a waist-high water level. Another disappointment for an expensive hotel.
After a nostalgic stroll around Ipanema, I was pleased to discover one of my favorite restaurants, La Garota de Ipanema was just a block for the hotel. The name of the restaurant means “the Girl from Ipanema” and the Portuguese lyrics are painted on a wall there where Vinicius de Maraes and Tom Jobim composed the popular song that many U.S. crooners adopted in its English version. I ordered poorly and returned to the hotel disappointed. Then I had to take my laptop to the front desk since I could not get online to check in for my flight. The desk needed to phone their tech service and they were able to get me configured by phone after half an hour. So I was able to answer a dozen emails and find out what was going on back in the states before packing for my flight home the next day.
A LONG WAY HOME
I had an early breakfast, checked out at 9:45, and Francisco was punctual as usual, actually early, and we got to the international airport in about 35 minutes. I got Francisco’s email in the event any friends decide to visit Rio. The COPA executive check-in went very quickly with a delightful bilingual young woman (not that many Brazilians speak Spanish), She invited me to the COPA VIP lounge, but it was located before passport control and control took nearly half an hour. When I finally got my passport stamped, the line was even much longer, perhaps an hour, so passengers would have to be very early to use the lounge. The charming agent in passport control told me the lines were longer due to high season. The flights to Panama and Mexico City were fairly punctual and uneventful, but I had begun a sinus inflammation the night before, probably from the drastic, frequent temperature changes. I was in misery without medication for the 18 hours in transit to Mexico, and I probably disgusted seat mates with the constant nasal flow. My reliable driver, Vicente Flores, was waiting and we were out of the airport by 11 pm, with little traffic that time of night. I was home in Cuernavaca by 12:15 am (4:15 am in Rio) and feeling miserable, but thankful to have had great health while in Brazil.
The great thing about a hobby like a blog is that I am forced to review and reflect upon a trip, pour through the scores of photos to select the ones that best illustrate the text, and spend hours wallowing in happy memories, neglecting or downplaying any discomforts. I had realized my dreams of New Year reveling in Rio, finally visiting exotic Paraty, and improving my Portuguese. It was such a thrill to hear a cab driver tell me “Voce fala como Carioca.” But all that Portuguese really messed up my Italian, so…………….. where to next?