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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Rio de Janeiro – Day Zero: The Friendship Trip

Jacq must be on her way back to the Philippines now. It’s been two weeks since we had our trip to Rio with Mike and Daryl. The Brazilian adventure was primarily conceived to compensate the Buenos Aires trip that Jacq missed. Planning was both financially and emotionally draining though. I don’t want to detail everything. Let’s just say that it’s gone through the eye of a needle, something that reaffirms the camaraderie we built here for the Uruguay project.

From Montevideo, we took a direct flight to Rio through Pluna ( Before, a stop-over at Sao Paulo is a must and that could mean more expensive and time consuming. Round trip ticket ranges from $400 to $600, depending of course, on how early you’ve prepared for the trip. Though Brazil is just on the East of Uruguay, it is still a big country and Rio is in the other coast. Philippine passport holders like us do not need a visa there so we didn’t have anything to worry about on that department. As per experience, looking for a place to stay that is within a reachable budget is far more frustrating than the rest of the planning. When we checked out website like, there was a notification that says “900 hotels, zero availability” or something like that. We’ve been searching for a place to stay for like a couple of days. Then we started Googling with “hostels in Rio” and started doing reservation by accessing the hostel website directly. That one worked and we ended up at El Misti Rio Hostel (I love the wordplay) in Copacabana ( which charges Brazilian Real (BRL) 35 or PHP 810 per person a night in an 8-bed room. In our case, we had three nights of stay. That’s from late night Friday up to Sunday and left Rio on an early Monday morning.

Everything went smoothly except for the 45-minute delay on our flight. That means we needed to contact the hostel to inform the driver who’s going to pick us up (BRL 60 or PHP 1,400 as mentioned in the website). The hostel, by the way, quickly replies to email inquiry, either in English or Spanish. When we arrived in Rio (Galeão-Antonio Carlos Jobim International Airport is pretty much the same as Guarulhos International Airport in Sao Paulo but simpler), we saw this girl from El Misti Rio waiting for us with a sign that says “Charles” and nothing more. We were close to getting an airport taxi but we decided to ask the girl if she, by any chance, is waiting for us. She called the hostel, got back to us and agreed. Then she headed to the waiting area and a car arrived. The driver happens to be the girl’s father and asked them if they can just charge the hostel since we didn’t have Brazilian real yet that time. It has to be noted that the money changer stalls in Terminal 2 close at midnight and I remember one staff saying that we should visit Terminal 1 instead. It would be good if you have your local currency ready upon landing.

(Scenes from our arrival, left to right: directions in Portuguese, arrival area and my first glimpse of downtown Rio)

The trip from the airport down to the city center is an experience on its own. I can say that it’s one of the beautiful airport-to-downtown trips I had in a while. I had to open down the car window to experience my very first Rio de Janeiro atmosphere. Mike said that the driver smiled when he saw the fascination in me. Streetlights along the elevated road (just like our Skyway) are yellowish, painting the houses and the mountains at the side a bit unusually melancholic and poetic. Residential area near the airport looks crowded and packed; something that you don’t want to visit at night. Then came a long dimly lit but wide tunnel (check out the video here). This prompted me to realize that in order to build a city out of mountainous Rio, tunnels had to be holed up. After the tunnel, you know that you’re already downtown when, from a far, you see this lighted tiny little Jesus on top of a mountain. It gets greener and the sea breeze is easily recognizable. More pictures of the arrival here.

We stopped in a well lighted road called Rua Tonelero (in French, street is “Rue”). It’s a bit empty during that time but it looks very safe. We had to doorbell the hostel, which you won’t easily recognize as there is no neon lighted sign outside of it. It’s like camouflaging from enemies. The receptionist that time named Moreano (or something that sounds like it) welcomed us. He settled our pick-up fee by changing some of my USD with a rate that is reasonable enough (good to have an Oanda currency converter iPhone application handy). Then he led us to our room at 202 which is good for eight travelers.

(Snapshots from El Misti Rio Hostel in Copacabana)

The room we had, when we arrived, was messy. Big backpacks on the floor, some wet beach wear hanging somewhere, etc. We knew that we’re sharing with four others which we haven’t met yet that time (probably they were out to party) but we had no idea which beds were ours as almost all of them looked used. Moreano then decided which is which and we fixed it. Jacq took the upper bed near the light switch and Daryl was beneath it. I took the lower bed adjacent to it while Mike took the other lower bed opposite mine. We had a quick settling in like having a toothbrush and securing our own stash just beneath our bed. The lock I brought is keyless so I don’t need to worry where to keep the key when sleeping.

Check out more pictures of the hostel and the area here.

Just when we’re about to wake up at 6am (after less than four hours of sleep), four guys (on their early 20’s perhaps) started to arrive. They were drunk and I heard them complaining about us taking one of their beds. This was settled the next day and we Team Pinoy used all the lower beds (they came to the hostel first anyway). The accent tells that they are from Australia. In an instant, they undressed and grabbed their own bed. One guy had a girl with him and they shared one small bed. The other guys were teasing them. I grabbed my red backpack and headed to the common toilet/bathroom (in our floor alone, there are two and both are just two or three steps away) to signal the start of Day 01.

Rio de Janeiro – Day 01: Highlights in One Day

Practically, we only had two whole days spare to enjoy the city. And the best way to optimize it is to get one of those open-top bus tours which, unfortunately, Rio doesn’t have (or we just didn’t put much effort to research). We got a suggestion from Line (and Jun who both declared that Rio is their favorite city in the world) about this guided private tour with Marcio Guedes ( I contacted him and set for a day tour (eight hours to be exact). The rate (USD 250 or PHP 10,900, no deposit needed) for a car that is good for five people. It’s a bit expensive but we figured later that it’s a good deal given the language barrier and the logistics of the spots that we intended to see.

(From left to right: train ticket for Corcovado, a menu checklist from Rio Scenarium and cable car ticket to Sugar Loaf Mountain)

Marcio was already in front of the hostel at 7:30am. We came from a nearby bank (since we don’t have enough BRL’s yet), bought our breakfast from a store in the corner for take-out and off we started the day. We settled the fee beforehand but that is our choice, not Marcio’s. Our first stop, the Corcovado (where Cristo Redentor stands) has its first train ride at 8:30am so we strolled first along the Copacabana neighborhood. He gave us a brief geography class about the city, like where Copacabana is and what’s on the other side of the tunnel, etc. We reached the train station at around 8:10am and killed the extra 20 minutes having our breakfast while Marcio was arranging for our train tickets. The thing with having a tourism center-approved guide is that he can walk past the queue. He happens to hold an ID as well and this means he’s free to enter any of the sites anytime.

Optionally, Cristo Redentor can be reached by your own car and just pay up for the van that would bring you from the parking area to the top. This doesn’t have a schedule like the train and it’s an advantage to see the top with fewer tourists around. It’s just that Trem do Corcovado (BRL 36 or PHP 833 each return ticket), being older than the statue itself by close to half a century, is another experience (comparable, perhaps, to the tram that sends you up to Victoria Peak in Hongkong). It goes through the Tijuca forest, just like the van, and is open to Cariocas (the locals) as a means of transportation for those who live in the upper part of the forest. I saw one lady on our way down but that’s about it. Marcio said that it’s different during weekdays when kids are returning home from school. There’s a part of the funicular railway ride where a breathtaking view of the city just pops up out of the bushy nowhere. Marcio was quick enough to give us heads up about it.

From the train, we ran to the nearest elevator and went straight to the giant statue. A couple of tourists were there already but it wasn’t that crowded. We got a picture taken from the stairs facing Christ. Marcio said it’s the best spot to put the Redeemer in picture. Since we’re close to it, that’s the only time I noticed that Cristo Redentor is made of mosaic, making me realize that it was built more elaborately than I initially thought of. Mosaic, by the way, can be seen in most pavements near the beach in Rio. It’s probably a city signature. More Corcovado pictures here and a video here.

For our next stop, Marcio suggested that we visit the Sugar Loaf Mountain during the late morning (as opposed to the initial plan that it will be done in the afternoon). Before we left the train station, I asked the guys if we could make a quick visit at the nearby shop (across the mini-park) so that I can buy the staple postcards and stamps (which, surprisingly, have different rates per region of destination).

At 10am, we were already at the ground station of the cable car (BRL 53 or PHP 1,226) that would bring us to the peak of Sugar Loaf Mountain. There are two stops. First is the Morro da Urca which is a lower boulder mountain. There’s a restaurant there and some shops (I saw some Havaianas on display). Early generation cable cars are also displayed there. Another cable car route connects Morro da Urca and the peak of Sugar Loaf Mountain. Rio de Janeiro is best viewed from the peak as you can see the different beaches like Ipanema and Leblon plus the rest of the Guanabara Bay. This is the reason why the train to Corcovado was built first in 1884, far earlier than the statue of Christ. Cariocas would love to go at the top to enjoy the view. I hope Wayna Picchu can be conquered this easily. Right before we descended, Marcio let us try this soft and chewy, glutton-free cheese balls fresh from the snack bar. It’s really good. More pictures of Sugar Loaf Mountain here plus videos here and here.

For lunch, we headed to Centro, particularly in Travessa do Comércio near Praça XV. We entered through Arco do Telles and strolled along a short alley where Carmen Miranda once lived in one of the houses. We got an eat-all-you-can feijoada at a restaurant called The Line. There are a lot of alfresco choices there but we’re all eyeing for that Brazilian national dish. There was a 3-man band playing some choro music (according to Marcio) along the alley, something that best complements our hearty lunch.

(Top row: Monastery of St. Benedict; Bottom row: Metropolitan Cathedral of St. Sebastian)

Full and sleepy, we finished our last few hours with a visit to two misleadingly charming Catholic churches, namely Mosteiro de São Bento (or Monastery of St. Benedict) and the Catedral Metropolitana de São Sebastião (or Metropolitan Cathedral of St. Sebastian). Both are simple (well, it’s debatable for Catedral Metropolitana) from the outside but very much intricate and elaborate once you enter it. The first church boasts of overly decorated interiors while the second one amazes us with the huge stained glass artwork. More pictures here and here.

Our very last stop with Marcio was the Escadaria Selarón (pictures here) in Sta. Teresa (the book calls it Ladeira de Sta. Teresa or Ladeira do Selarón). It’s a series of multi-colored steps made by (and named after) a Chilean artist. The whole stretch is made vivid by the cemented tiles from all over the world. A small tile from the Philippines, bearing the republic seal, seats at the left side of the stairs. It’s not easy to find. It’s good that Marcio’s around and he just approached the artist’s assistant to help us locate our entry. If you’ve seen The Amazing Race 18, the Rio de Janeiro leg on the episode prior to the season finale, teams were asked to locate for their clue card there.

The rest of Centro pictures here.

As much as we didn’t want to end the tour, we had no choice but to be back at the hostel. That was around 4pm. Our last spot from our checklist for the day will resume at 8pm so we had time to do our own thing. Daryl and Jacq had to check their emails, Mike slept at the room while I prepared the postcards in the dining area after finishing a glass of papaya – passion fruit mix from the mini-snack place in the corner. This is also the time where our roommates were all sober and the bed assignment was settled. I charged my camera battery and just left the thing plugged in the dining area.

Clocked at exactly 8pm, we were already at the entrance of Rio Scenarium (pictures here) in Lapa (Rua do Lavaradio). We took a taxi going there for around BRL 25 or PHP 584). Marcio advised us to visit the place instead of the pre-planned trip (from 10pm to 4am) to different schools practicing for the Carnaval next year. I would say that it was a good call. The resto-bar is pretty much similar to Aca Bar in Buenos Aires in terms of the decoration (old items mounted on the wall, etc.) less the paintings and the board games. There was a band playing some Brazilian music and I remember them playing Mais Que Nada. I’ve heard different musical styles for the day but I still can’t differentiate one from the other just by listening to the drumbeat. By 10pm, as advised, the place was already full house either by people who were dining or gyrating in the dance floor. We had some steak and a local beer called Bohemia (which, according to Daryl is like San Mig Light). Before we left at 11pm past, we visited the other floors (there are two more) and took pictures of the area. From Rio Scenarium, we walked to the area near Arcos da Lapa where the roads are closed for people to mingle, chill and have some beer. We didn’t stay long and we headed back to the hostel. Videos here and here.

(From left to right: Interior of Rio Scenarium, party goers dancing to Brazilian music and Arcos da Lapa)

At close to midnight, we were scavenging for a good coffee shop in the hostel area. We walked heading to the beach but we couldn’t find something Starbucks-ish. We ended up preparing our own coffee at the hostel kitchen which is not a bad idea. I got my camera battery charger back and finished stamping my postcards while having a cup of “homemade” coffee.

Rio de Janeiro – Day 02: Jardim Botânico and the Beaches

Our second (and last whole) day in Rio was spent mostly relaxing; something that can be attributed to what vacation is all about. We woke up an hour later than yesterday while roommates were still sleeping. We also managed to catch the hostel breakfast which starts at 8am. Compared to the one we had in Buenos Aires, the breakfast was more continental: toasts, butter, marmalade, ham and lots of fruits.

We took a cab again from the hostel going to Jardim Botânico (pictures here). It’s a huge botanic garden complete with alleys lined up with palm trees, a Japanese garden, a water lily pond, an orchidarium and more. We spend the whole gloomy morning there just chilling out and literally smelling the flowers. I enjoyed the visit. In fact, I got the most number of pictures from this spot.

(Species from the botanical garden)

Right before when we’re about to get a cab going to Garota de Ipanema restaurant, Bernardo, our officemate who lives in Rio picked us up for a joyride to his place called Barra which is another district along the beach. It leisurely gives us enough views on how Cariocas live in the area, favela life included. Bernardo also brought us to the hang gliding place (videos here, here, and here) but it was cloudy (though they were still operational). We had a share of corn there served a la Filipino vendor style. The lady selling it smiled when she saw me taking pictures of the corn. More highlights probably, aside from the sand, are the place where Ronhaldino once lived (or still using, I don’t remember) and a short trip to a refreshment bar called Bibi where we had our first taste of strawberry-flavored açai dessert topped with some granola (really, really good).

(From left to right: Barra beach, açai with granola and the Prainha coast)

The rest of the pictures taken from Barra and beyond here.

From there, we went further to the south called Prainha where a lovely beach coast was seen from a view deck. There’s nothing much to do there aside from conquering the southernmost part of Rio. At 3pm past, we were already on our way to Ipanema and Leblon where dropped us off. Though we haven’t had lunch that time, we didn’t go directly to a restaurant yet. We had some souvenir shopping to do at Feira Hippie Market which is open only on Sundays. I only got a t-shirt since we didn’t find any good shot glass in there. That signaled the start of another adventure for us, shot glass hunting on a Sunday evening.

We attempted to communicate with the police in the station near the plaza with the help of a phrase book and the minimal Spanish we know. It was an epic fail. Then we tried looking for shops in the beachfront but there’s none. We went to the nearest hotel and asked where we can find the souvenir items we’re looking for. The receptionist suggested a mall called Shopping Leblon so we took a cab going there as it is around ten blocks from where we were. By the looks of the mall’s façade alone, we’re sure that we couldn’t find a shot glass there but we still pushed our luck. The customer service girl, who speaks English fluently, said that the closest we can find is a photography shop. I called Marcio (yes, he’s free to accept inquiry over the phone or so I thought) and he said that in the area, the hippie market is the lone option. We did not rest our spirits there and decided to check back the souvenir shop we visited near the train station going to Corcovado. It was starting to rain and I can imagine the cab going around the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas. The train station was already closed when we got there, as well as the souvenir shop across the mini-park which was empty and quiet that time. We then asked the driver to just bring us back to Ipanema, specifically to Garota de Ipanema Restaurant for a comfort lunch, or dinner, that we all deserve.

(From left to right: Garota de Ipanema façade and picanha grille)

The pedigree of the restaurant, by the way, is that the song “Garota de Ipanema” (popularized by Frank Sinatra as “Girl from Ipanema” with a long e) was written by Carlos Antonio “Tom” Jobim there. It used to have another name but the owner decided to make use of the fame it’s getting. I don’t know if the “real girl” is still around but I remember another episode of The Amazing Race a couple of seasons ago where the teams were tasked to look for her at Ipanema beach. Maybe we were too hungry and tiresome that time. We finished two servings of churrascaria/picanha style dish, which, according to Marcio, is good for three per order. The food is served on a grille with the meat half cooked. It’s up to us to finish the cooking which kept us busy for a few minutes more.

We explored more of Ipanema by walking along the mosaic-filled pavements, went back to where the hippie market was stalled and took a metro ride from there. It wasn’t busy for a Sunday train ride. Ticketing system is state-of-the-art and route details are available including a portion for the blind (it’s in Braille), something that is new to me. The station where we got out is just across the hostel (one of the perks why we chose it).

(Snapshots from Praia de Copacabana)

At past 9pm, we were back to our hostel room. We changed clothes (my first time to wear the beach shorts I bought just for the trip), put on our chinelos (Brazilian/Portuguese for slippers) and headed to the Copacabana beach. We walked up to the Copacabana Palace (the very first hotel in the city and is featured in the U2 music video “Walk On”) and walked back in the sand trying to endure the cool breeze. Our leisure walk culminated in one of those generic yellow stalls that sell snack and coconut drink. I had my first authentic caipirinha (which is stronger than the ones I tried in El Pony Pisador in Montevideo) and Daryl, Jacq and Mike had soda while enjoying a basketball match on TV between Brazil and Argentina. We left the beach when the game was over. More pictures of Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon beaches here.

The rest of the evening was spent packing our things. I decided to take a bath at midnight in preparation for the early morning departure.

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