Sunday, January 30, 2011

Rained-in in Rio and Lessons for Brazil 2014

After 3 reasonably relaxed days in Johannesburg watching Sachin score his 50th test ton and a whistlestop tour of Sun City, we flew to Sao Paolo on the 21st of December. The flight was "non red-eye" with the flight taking off from Johannesburg at 1030am and landing in Sao Paolo at 430pm giving me the full opportunity to enjoy my first flight in business class. At 24500 miles per person one way it was an awesome bargain for a 10 hour flight that was filled with champagne, foie gras & caviar. In spite of the flight timings I think I was able to utilize the flat beds for a quick nap in between the movies & episodes of Lie to Me. The bit about entertainment is important as South African Airways only has personalized screens in business, a fact that we got rudely acquainted with on the flight back in economy.

Flying into Brazil, Sao Paolo is used as a gateway by most international airlines. Sao Paolo is not very high on attractions for tourists so if possible book your flights into Brazil with the local connection the same day and on the same itinerary. This would protect you if you miss your connection due to the international flight being late. We did not have this luxury as we were using miles and had the option of taking a flight or bus to Rio de Janeiro (50 min by flight or a 6 hour bus ride).

Unlike the rest of South America, travelling by bus is fairly expensive although extremely comfortable in Brazil. Rule of thumb, a bus ride will cost about Brazilian Real 25-35 (US$15-$20)/hour of travel in seats that are the equivalent of airline business class seats. Travel by bus from Sao Paolo to Rio costs about US$90-110 depending upon the bus company. Given the high volume of air traffic and flight options on this route, it is fairly easy to get a flight for a similar price. We booked air tickets for about US$120 but given that we needed to factor in for any international flight delay we booked the last flight on TAM at 10pm.

For a change South African Airways was reasonably efficient and the immigration, customs & baggage handlers at Sao Paolo were super efficient so we were out and checked in for our flight by 6ish. The next 4 hours were spent plays Angry Birds. In fact during the first few days of the trip Angry Birds was our & favourite pastime. So much so that we had unlocked all levels (yes all roughly 500+ levels of the full game including the golden eggs) by the time we started the trek in Torres Del Paine National park.

Anyway given Murphy's law, since we were nice and early for a flight, the flight had to be delayed and we took off after 1130pm and reached our hotel late night well after 1am. By this time I had realised that I was going to be way off my budget for the time we were going to spend in Brazil. Given that the trip was booked and finalized in the last week of Nov/first week of Dec, I had not been as meticulous in my budgeting as I usually am for vacations and had assumed a similar cost of living in Brazil as for other South American countries basis the previous trip. The fact that our hostel was costing 50% more than anywhere else on the entire trip did not tip me off to that fact but a few hours after landing in Brazil I knew my budgeting was screwed.

After landing in Sao Paolo and seeing that we had 4 hours available I thought about going to the city for a quick look see or coffee. I consulted my guide book and found out that taxi would cost a flat fare of BRL75 i.e approx US$45 (1.7BRL~1US$). A bus ride on the airport bus to the city center costs BRL32 i.e. US$20 per person. So there wasn’t too much of an advantage in taking public transport into the city either. In between games of Angry Birds, while looking for snacks we chanced upon the 250ml tetra packs of chocolate milk (one of Pooja’s favourite in between meal snacks) for BRL 10. If I was thinking that things were expensive because we were at an airport I was wrong. The same chocolate milk in the discounted super markets cost BRL 4 which is still US$2.5. A ride in the bus/metro for BRL 2.40 in Rio, BRL 40 for a meal for 2 at a standard small streetside restaurant frequented by locals and not tourists, BRL 4 for a glass of acai juice from a streetside shop. Oh and if you, like me, budget for a trip using the latest edition of Lonely Planet.. well think again!! The latest edition available is Jan 2008 which means the price are valid as of approx 2007. Inflation in South America like India is fairly high so for 2010 those prices were off by anywhere between 20%-50%. Plus the fact that we budgeted for Brazil along the lines of Chile/Peru/Arg meant that the budget took quite a hit till we left for Chile.

For all those planning a trip to Brazil in 2014 for the FIFA World Cup (like me!!!) budget US like prices and start saving right now.
Anyway coming back to Rio we got a taxi (for BRL 70 *shudder* vs the guidebook estimate of BRL50!!!!) If you land at a reasonable time in Rio and are staying in the tourist hub of Copacabana, Ipanema or Botafogo then take the Real Airport bus. It costs something like BRL 7-8 per person and is a real cost saving.
We stayed at Beach Backpackers (which was incidently nowhere near a beach) for US$65 a night for a double in the neighbourhood called Botafogo, which is about 3-4 metro stops from Copacabana/Ipanema as well as Santa Theresa/Centro/Lapa. Rio is an expensive place to visit as even backpackers in Copacaban and Ipanema cost in between US$75-100 for a double. For reasonable 2-3 star hotels factor in about US$125-175 and most chain 5 start hotels would be in excess of US$250/night. For those reading this from a point of view of planning for 2014, stay in either Ipanema or Botafogo but budget at least US$100 for even a double in a backpackers. Hotels would anyway hike their rates significantly so hotel prices should be along the lines of South Africa this year with most 5 star chain hotels going in excess of US$350 and the 2-3 stars charging about US$200/night. The hotels around Copacabana seemed slightly run down and the Maracana stadium is fairly far from all these neighbourhoods so none really give a locational advantage.

I was fairly happy to have had the foresight to book a room with A/C (first backpacker I have stayed in with A/C anywhere in the world) as the weather was quite hot & humid. The backpacker was in a residential neighbourhood and had a lot of places to eat & drink within walking distance (including 24h eateries for those landing at 1:30am). Walking around the main streets in Botafogo i never felt threatened at any time of the night and Rio overall seemed to be reasonably safe if you followed the standard precautions that you would follow in any city. Maybe it felt more relaxed considering I was comparing it to Johannesburg but neither did I hear any stories to unduly concern me from other travellers I came across in the city.

After a fairly hectic 21st of Dec that went in transit to get to Rio, the 22nd was spent leisurely strolling around Copacabana & Ipanema beaches. At this point I would like to make a confession: I had heard these stories about the beautiful, bronzed people that frequent Copacabana & Ipanema beaches and was positively psyched about sharing the same real estate with these people. Prior to the trip I had had not so pleasant dreams about taking off my tee shirt at the beach to howls of laughter and stares from the people around me.. well I was able to put those fears at rest within minutes of landing on Copacabana. Rio is a city with beautiful white sandy beaches but I think the entire hoopla around beautiful people is way overrated. While Brazil does possess its share of Gisele Bundsens’, the average woman on the street and the beaches are no different from anywhere else in the world. If anything the overall fitness of the population reminded me more of India than Europe.

So pack in your Speedo’s without the need to invest in a gym membership for 2 years to flaunt those 6 packs on Copacabana in 2014, there will be enough paunches to blend into when you get there :)

Ipanema on the whole has a more “happening” vibe as compared to Copacabana which to me felt a little run down. However the entire stretch from Copacabana to Ipanema is fun to walk around. Copacabana is hemmed in between the mountains on one side and the sea on the other and at some places the distance between the sea and mountains is just 6-7 blocks. The main shopping street in Ipanema is a fun place to shop with interesting designer boutiques guaranteed to keep the missus busy for hours.

Given the proximity of the sea and the mountains, there are a number of fabulous view points to look over the city. 2 of the most famous view points are the top of Sugar Loaf mountain and Corcovado mountain (where Christ the Redeemer statue is situated). We took the cable car to the top of Sugar loaf mountain (for a price of “you got to be kidding me” BRL 44 vs the guide book price of BRL 32) on 22nd afternoon hoping to photograph the city in the late afternoon sun and at sunset. Unfortunately it started getting cloudy when we were on the way up to the mountain, while that lent an interesting air to the photographs we took of Christ the Redeemer statue surrounded by clouds, it completely dampened the experience of photographing the city with the deep blue sea in the background. The sunset was hardly visible with the clouds around and right after sunset the heavens opened up. We were still on top of the mountain and given the high winds the authorities decided to close to station at the top and all the 20 odd people remaining at the top level of the mountain, including us,  were herded down. We got completely drenched in the 10 odd meters that it took for us to run from the snack bar, where we had taken shelter, to the cable car station.

The weather hardly relented over the rest of our trip which is probably one of the reasons that I left Rio slightly underwhelmed. The next morning we went to the top of Corcovado mountain where Christ the Redeemer status is situated. There are 2 ways to get to the top of the mountain, either by coach (bus) or by train. Both cost the same (BRL 36) but the coach only waits for you for a certain amount of time whereas if you go up by train you can roam around at your own leisure. Typically there are touts who meet you outside the station asking you to take the bus as the next available train is only after 2 hours etc etc. Ignore them, go to the station ticket window and check the next available train. We got one leaving within 20 min of us arriving at the station when there were at least 3 different people who had told us that the next available train was only in the afternoon.

We got to the top of the mountain and were greeted by… zilch. The statue was lost in the cloud and we could barely make out the base of the statue. We whiled away a bit of time at the cafeteria until the clouds parted just enough for us to take the mandatory photo ops. The view from the top of the Corcovado is apparently breathtaking with the entire city spread below you before merging into the crescent of white sand beaches and the deep blue sea interspersed by green mountains. However we did not get to see an iota of that view but at least have something to look forward to in 2014 :)
Once we got down from the mountain, armed with the swimsuit we headed towards the beach but were thwarted yet again by the bad weather and had to make do with drowning our weather driven bad luck in glasses of Caipirinha, Brazil’s national cocktail made of sugarcane fermented alcohol, sugar & lime.

We spent our last day in Rio in the center of town around the neighbourhoods of Centro, Lapa and Santa Theresa. Lapa is a slightly edgy neighbourhood where there is a discernable presence of a greater number of beggars/homeless people and a much higher police presence. However the area felt distinctly Latin American rather than the Miami style neighbourhoods of Ipanema & Copacabana.

The highlight of the day was Escadaria de Saleron (Saleron’s stairs). This used to be a public staircase rising 4 floors from the street level in a slightly iffy neighbourhood which has been transformed into a work of art containing tiles from 180+ countries by Saleron. Saleron is this slightly old eccentric guy who sits there in red shorts and personally autographs souvenir tiles that you can buy from his workshop. He also paints images on his own tiles and loves to paint himself as a pregnant woman in various poses. We bought one of the souvenir tiles (the ones with a pregnant Saleron obviously!!) and after the mandatory photo-op and autograph, we spent a bit of time looking around the different tiles that included 13 tiles from India. There were images of Sai baba, Hanuman, Lakshmi, Shiva and Saleron was more than happy to point us to all 13 tiles from India once he knew we were from India.

We also spent some time in the day riding the Bonde, the tram that used to run in the hilly streets of Rio but became obsolete. There is only a single line that runs in the district of Santa Theresa and is used more by tourists than locals. Santa Theresa is the bohemian neighbourhood in Rio that is seeing a revival with a lot of investment coming into refurbishing the mansions in the area. A lot of new backpackers have opened in the area (typically higher quality and much lower price than other neighbourhoods) but given the proximity of the favelas it is generally recommended to stay close to the tram route and not walk around into the interiors.

Another day or two with better weather would have been nice in Rio to get a better feel of the city. For those planning a visit in 2014, budget at least 5 days to extract the maximum from your visit. Hopefully this visit for me would act as a recee for 2014, and I will get another chance to experience Rio’s salsa clubs, beaches and mountains under bright sunshine!!

1 comment:

  1. Hi Mohit,
    I am Abhishek from Mumbai.Well even I am planning a trip to Brazil for the worldcup. Can I contact you through mail to discuss the travel? that is if you don't mind. here's my mail ID
    thanks again