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On 2nd March 2007 we flew by LAN Chile Airlines from Sydney to Rio de Janeiro via Auckland and Santiago. It took over 24 hours but we arrived the same day due to us crossing the international date line and gaining a day. We had pre booked the airport hotel in Rio and were pleased to find the hotel was actually part of the terminal so we could push our bags on the trolly from the baggage carousel to the hotel reception.
Next day we discovered that to hire a beat up Fiat Punto from Avis, Hertz or the local Brazilian mob and leave it in Sao Paulo would cost us £150 for a 24 hour hire. You could hire a Rolls Royce for that in the UK but we had booked a hotel halfway which we had to pay for and after investigating all the alternatives we bit the bullet and drove away in the most expensive hire car I have ever driven! As we drove from the airport we saw no road signs for Sao Paulo and eventually found ourselves in downtown Rio. Help!! Did a u-turn and headed back towards the airport where we eventually found a sign.
The Donati Hotel is about 250 km along the road up in the mountains in a national park. The road to the hotel degenerated into a cart track and then into a grade IV rock climb which tested the Punto's undercarriage, however, we eventually arrived at a load of Swiss Chalets. It seemed that the hotel charge we had paid included lunch, dinner bed and breakfast so £50 for a double seemed quite a good deal. We dipped ourselves in the pool which was fed by a stream coming down the mountain and ate that night in company with the two other guests.
The next morning we continued on to The Marriot Airport Hotel and dumped the gold plated Punto at the airport. We spent the afternoon beside the hotel pool and enjoyed an excellent meal in the restaurant. We had an early night as we were due to meet up with a Belgian tour group at 7am the next day.
We duly arrived well before 7am and discovered there were two different terminals. Not having any flight number we were not sure what flight our Belgians were arriving on but neither terminal had any European flights arriving at 7am. We knew we had an onward flight to Foz do Iguaçu so a quick check with the GOL airlines showed we were booked on a flight from a different airport at 7pm. No sign of any tour rep so called Ilse, our Belgian travel agent who called Best Tours and called us back to tell us the rest of the Belgian tour party would now arrive by Iberia from Madrid at 8.45am. Now we knew the flight we found the tour rep and it was about 10am before all 40 Belgians were assembled. We were then told that we were unable to fly direct to Iguaçu direct but were leaving from another airport at 7pm via Curitiba and would not arrive at our hotel until 2am the next morning. We could either sit with our bags at the airport for nine hours or take a city tour they had arranged for the bargain fee of 20 each. Welcome to Brazil!
The tour around Sao Paulo was fairly dreadful. It is a huge modern city with hundreds of tower blocks of little architectural significance which seemed to be covered in graffitti. An ugly city which did not endear itself to me the first time I stepped off the bus and someone attempted to pick my pocket.
We checked into our hotel in Foz do Iguaçu at 2am the next morning to be told we would be woken at 6am for our first excursion. We had been awake since 5am the previous morning but our Belgian compatriots had been going for about 15 hours longer. In England we treat dogs better!
Off next to the Iguacu national park, the home of the mother of all waterfalls whose symbol is the opossum, several of which were wandering around the place. The river and the park straddle the Brazilian and Argentine border. We walked along the Brazilian side of the river, looking across to the Argentine side. The total length of the falls is 14km so that no camera can capture its immensity. The majority of volume of water coming over the falls is at the apex of the two river gorges, one on the Brazilian side and the other on the Argentinian side.
After a meal of Argentine beef we went back to Brazil and, while some of our party went for a helicopter ride over the falls, most of us went round a bird park nearby.
Just as we were beginning to relax and enjoy ourselves came the announcement they were waking us at 4am the next morning for a 6am flight to Curitiba. The flight was on time and by 7am we were "enjoying" a trip around the city!
A 5am start the next morning did not endear us to Best Tours and a 13 hour bus trip to Parati did even less. Flights are cheap here and we could have flown via Sao Paulo in half the time. When we were invited to walk around the town on our arrival we politely declined and missed out on the excursions the next day in favour of lazing by the Pousada pool. Parati was a pleasant enough colonial village but dusty, dirty and oppressively hot. It was a tourist trap where we were ripped off for a poor meal with a good guitarist.
Another 4am wakeup call! This time it was so we could all marvel at the Maracana stadium in Rio, something we had no interest in whatsoever but there was only one bus. They also went and looked at the Sambadrome while we sat on the bus. Why people might be interested in looking at empty stadia is beyond my imagination.
Rio is a city I had always dreamed of visiting. From a distance it did not disappoint but close up it was grubby and not very pretty.
Our hotel was at the Ipanema end of Copacabana so it was very easy to walk there. It seemed to be the liveliest place at night with lots of pavement cafes, bars and restaurants.
Perhaps the highlight of our visit to Rio was to the top of the Corcovado mountain where the giant statue of Christ looks out over the city. You can drive to the top but we travelled up in a Swiss mountain train. At the top station there are lifts and escalators to take you to the summit where you are treated to a magnificent panorama of this spectacular cityscape of which there can be few equals.
There were many drugs because the price was very much lower than outside but they had schools, shops, hospitals and even an organised council but they paid no taxes which meant the businesses which prospered stayed in the Favelas even if the owners moved out.
Leaving Rio we headed West up into the mountains on a spectacular road to Petropolis, the summer home of the last Emperor of Brazil. In the summer palace you were given cloth covers for your shoes to protect the Jacaranda wood floors so you glided around polishing the floor as you went. This was another rushed visit followed by another long bus trip, arriving at our hotel in the middle of nowhere at 10pm and no dinner.
The next morning I rode a horse over the mountains but Sue was too frit. I also found a piano in the village bar and indulged in a few jazz numbers which was met by rapturous applause from the locals!
And so to Salvador do Bahia via the bus to Belo Horizonte and a late flight. We were supposed to arrive at noon but that was never going to happen as the plane was not scheduled to leave until 1pm and it was a two hour flight.
We arrived at 4.30pm and embarked on the city tour as it was getting dark. I queried how we were expected to see the glories of Salavador in the dark and when would we arrive at the hotel? I was told we would walk around for two or three hours then have dinner at a cookery school and check in to the hotel between 10 and 11pm at which stage I threw all my toys out of the pram and demanded our luggage be removed from the bus. We travelled directly to the hotel by taxi. The next morning they forgot to wake us up early so we missed that excursion. Fortunately some of our tour group had formed a cabal and organised their own excursions wherever possible. We were invited to join their city tour and did so with some relief at not having to visit a cigar factory.
It was nice to see Salvador in the daylight. It is a very colourful city full of baroque architecture and churches full of gold, one of them has 800kg of gold leaf in its decorations. An elevator takes you up from the harbourside covered market to the old city.
For those of us too mean to pay the big pantied women to pose, artificial models were provided.
That evening Best Tours provided free Caipirhinas in the hotel bar. This is Brazilís national drink and is made with crushed ice and limes, sugar and cachaça, a spirit derived from sugarcane. The whole tour were busy filling out complaint forms from Best Tours and there was an end of term atmosphere - "thank god its all over at last". We all went to a show with dinner. We had looked forward to tasting Bahian spicy food but if this was an example it was tasteless and spiceless. The show was athletic and, well, boring I suppose.
The tour split up the next day. Some were returning to Belgium exhausted, others flew to the Amazon while we transferred a couple of hours by bus to the luxury Sofitel Suites hotel at the Costa do Sauipe for five nights at the end of which we were fed up with lying on the beach and eating poor food.
It took a day to travel from here back to Salvador, fly to Rio and then transfer by bus to Buzios.
Here we arrived at the Glenzhaus Lodge in darkness to be met by the owner, Luis, who invited us to the bar for a caipirhina. Over drinks with some Chilean doctors at the bar we learnt that Louis was an Argentinian who was educated at a Scottish school in the Argentine where he was not allowed to speak Spanish. He regarded English as his mother tongue and had lived abroad for many years in Paris, Amsterdam and London.
The accommodation here was as good as any we have ever stayed in, huge suites with large balconies overlooking the swimming pool around which we ate breakfast. Johanssen listed this as the best small hotel in South America, it has only 10 rooms. Luis entertained us each night with his cosmopolitan experiences and strong caipirhinas which were always free during happy hour, then he would transport us to one of many superb international restaurants down in the village. During the day Luis would ferry us to the beach or wherever we wanted to be, the perfect host and the hotel a real home from home.
Buzios was made famous in the early 60's by Brigitte Bardot who is immortalized in bronze on the seafront. It quickly became the St Tropez of Brazil with an array of boutiques and restaurants of every description. After four days of this pampered luxury we were genuinely sorry to leave. Luis may now have left as I see the hotel is now part of a bigger group but if you are ever in Brazil this is one place that should be on your itinerary.
And so we returned to London and eventually Kerkhoven and dear old Harmonie. It had been six months since we left her and she was a little dirty but otherwise in fine fettle after being deserted for so long.
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