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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!
They woke us up after four hours sleep just to see a big Dam! Ok so it is the biggest in the world until the Chinese finish theirs and it supplies 70% of the electricity needs of Paraguay, but they could have let us sleep in and I would have gladly missed out the dam.
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.
We returned to the hotel after lunch. Some stalwarts went off to Paraguay but most of us relaxed beside the pool and had an early night. The next day we visited the Argentinian side of the park. Here they had a little train to take you to the main part of the falls from the entrance. A walkway had been built for about 1.5km across the river above the falls to a viewing platform above a place called the Devils Throat where the majority of water thunders over the falls. Back on the train again to another trail which followed a scenic loop around another section of the falls and terminated at the river where we embarked on large inflatable boats with a seating capacity of about 40 equipped with two very large outboard motors.
We had all changed into our swimming costumes in preparation and because of the trip being so wet, no cameras could be taken. The boat went first up to the base of the falls on the Brazil side. The engines were not powerful enough to climb up the final rapids so we turned and floated under one of the smaller falls, then back down the gorge and up to the Argentine falls which we went right under. The water pressure was considerable and the boat stayed afloat. Everyone on board cheered so the skipper did it again before we returned to the shore soaking wet and considerably cooler.
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.
The park was very well put together. Most of the birds were in large walk through aviaries and although birds like the toucan were much in evidence in the wild, it was nice to get good close up shots of them. That evening we went to a show with dinner and dances from the three countries which meet at this point. Paraguay was very rustic, Argentina was very sophisticated with much tango and Brazil was very uninhibited and vivacious with much samba, bossa nova and near nakedness!
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!
This museum was designed by the architect responsible for most of Brasilia, the capital city. We also visited the old colonial part of the city which was frankly unimpressive and a strange structure they call the Wire Opera House, built in the middle of a lake constructed entirely of tubular steel and glass. The bus then took us about 80km across the high plateau on which Curitiba is built and down over the escarpment to the heat of the coastal plain. Here we had an excellent lunch in a little country village at a restaurant owned by a Belgian ex pat. We had deep fried prawns in their shell and a taste of the local Genever.
A small rickety train took us back to Curitiba. It labours slowly back up the escarpment climbing about 2000 metres in altitude and was a marvel of railway engineering when it was constructed in the early 1800's.
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.
You climb the sugarloaf mountain by two cable cars. The first one takes you to a larger flatter topped mountain then you are launched out into space up to the higher sugarloaf. From the top is a view over the huge harbour and back to the city beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema. Climbers were attempting the vertiginous directissimo. Our Cariocan guide sang "The Girl from Ipanema" to us very sweetly although she was not as pretty as Astrid Gilberto!
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.
There is an ancient tramcar which takes you over an old aquaduct and up into St. Teresa, an old part of the city where train robber Ronald Biggs lived with his Brazilian girlfriend for about 30 years. The ride starts just behind the new cathedral which looks more like some Aztec monument than a Christian church. A walk around the colonial part of Rio revealed some of the more historic parts of the city which were first settled by the Portuguese.
An Art Deco coffee shop was a real delight and we were told most of the fitments were shipped in from Belgium.
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.
The view spans from right to left the lagoon behind Ipanema, Copacabana, the Sugarloaf mountain round to the 14km long bridge across the harbour.You just can't stop taking photographs in every direction while helicopters buzz around and the odd cloud floats below you giving a real feeling of altitude.
One more excursion remained in Rio and that was a visit to the favela de Rocinha. Poor people from northern Brazil are attracted to large cities like Rio to find employment. When they get there it is difficult to find anywhere to live apart from miles out of the city away from their employment so they built homes in steep places close to the cities which were considered unsuitable for building on.
These slums became known as Favelas and the biggest is at Rocinha which houses 150,000, they think! We were transported by jeep to the top of the mountain then walked down through the Favela. Our guide actually lived in the Favela, spoke French, English, Portuguese and was learning to speak German. He explained that the Favelas were the least dangerous places to live as there was a sense of community and people looked after each other.
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.
Judging from the mass of wires on the electricity pole, there were a few who didn't pay for their electricity either!
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!
Following a brief visit to an old gold mine we finally arrived in quaint little Ouro Preto situated beneath a high mountain topped with a huge volcanic plug similar to the one we had seen in China.
Here we experienced a little of the local cuisine for lunch. The food was a selection of different stews, all fairly bland. Food in Brazil can generally be described as uninteresting. They do excel in their Churrasqueria where you can eat all sorts of different BBQ'd meat bought round on skewers and carved onto your plate accompanied by a buffet salad bar. They are very inexpensive and they keep serving you until you say "help, I'm full" but every restaurant we stopped at was one of these and you do get fed up of the same thing all the time.
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.
Once there you are assailed by big pantied women who require money to pose with you in their national dress. The local dance originates from a form of martial arts rather like Thai kick boxing and they seem to go on forever, oblivious to the heat and humidity.
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.