We are now in one of the greatest cities in the world, Rio de Janeiro. Rio is a legendary city of heroes, magic, and marvel. This city´s incredible natural setting alone is enough to count it among the world’s greatest metropolises. It is spectacularly set along the Atlantic coast amidst beautiful stretches of pristine beaches near lush, towering limestone peaks.
Rio de Janeiro is the place that every evil genius and criminal mastermind dreams of retiring to. Its famous beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana are perfect places to sip rum out of a coconut and chuckle about how you’ve out-foxed them all. Rio de Janeiro is the kind of city you escape to after pulling off a major heist or caper.
The caper we had to pull off to get here was a harrowing four-day-long overland crossing from Sucre, Bolivia. What may not look so far on a map of the world, turned out to be a good 70 hours of solid travel. It all started with our taking a 14-hour night bus from Sucre to Santa Cruz in eastern Bolivia. Although we didn’t make the excursion, we passed not far from La Higuera, where Ernesto “Che” Guevara (our hero and spiritual icon for this trip) met his Christ-like demise at the hands of CIA-trained Bolivian troops. I have heard there isn’t much to see other than the monument at the actual locale itself, but a tourism-based “Che trail” is under construction that tours through some of the last sites visited by the legendary revolutionary.
After a sleepless night on the bus, we arrived in Bolivia’s largest city, Santa Cruz, where we immediately headed to the train station and booked a ticket on the “Death Train” to the Brazilian border town of Quijarro. The train left at high noon and didn’t arrive until around 7:30 a.m. the next morning. As I’ve said before, at this point we are willing to do just about anything to avoid a bus and get the chance to travel by train. I am a huge train buff in general, so I really enjoyed the chance to take this obscure route through the heart of South America. The ride was great; however, the train was not a sleeper, so we spent a second sleepless night periodically repositioning ourselves within the tight confines of our chairs.
We arrived at the Brazilian border after a good 21 hours on the train. It was at this point that we noticed we had another 28-hour bus ride to reach our next intended destination, Rio de Janeiro. Although I was feeling just masochistic enough to make the trip, my travel partner Eric admitted exhaustion. I must admit, it didn’t take too much for him to convince me that we should take a full day to recover before subjecting ourselves to the further punishment the awaiting bus ride would bring.
Unfortunately, we decided this after we crossed the Brazilian border. That decision turned out to be unfortunate for us because it was at this point that we discovered exactly how expensive Brazil is. Coming from the poorest country in South America–Bolivia, to one of the richest–Brazil, proved to be quite a shock to the wallet. We ended up spending the night in the forgettable border town of Corumba, Brazil, after trudging around to countless overpriced hotels. Although both our hotel room and meal that night were little more than basic, they ended up being among the most expensive of the entire trip.
In addition to the “sticker-shock” we experienced from the expensive prices in Brazil, we also experienced a fair amount of confoundment when confronted with the Portuguese language. After everything we had learned from our four months in Spanish speaking countries, we were right back to square one language-wise, the second we entered Brazil.
I know what you’re thinking: “Isn’t Portuguese really similar to Spanish?” That’s what I was thinking; that is, up until the moment I heard Portuguese spoken. Granted, both Spanish and Portuguese are Romance languages derived from Latin and yes both look similar when written; however, hearing Portuguese spoken sounds nothing like Spanish. Even with our fierce arsenal of Spanish vocabulary, we were hard-pressed to make out a single Portuguese word spoken to us; they may as well have been speaking Vietnamese.
As difficult as it is to understand, I’ll admit that Portuguese is a beautiful language to hear spoken. There is a very distinctive accent used in Brazilian Portuguese that is evidenced in their lazy-sounding enunciation of words. In some ways it reminds me of a mix between a strong Boston accent and something like Cajun.
There are plenty of sounds like “sh” and “oi” used in Portuguese, and we found it hilarious that the Spanish number 2, pronounced “dose” in English, became “dois” in Portuguese. Also the saying “mas o menos” (more or less) in Spanish ends up sounding like a Steinbeck novel when given the Portuguese pronunciation “mice o menos.”
After having traveled through twelve countries so far on this trip, entering Brazil felt distinctively different. We felt as if we’d just landed on another continent that seemed like a strange mix between Latin America and Europe. Like a giant, unpolished emerald, the country of Brazil spreads over nearly half of the total area of South America. It is a world unto itself and I have no doubt a person could spend an entire six month trip just exploring it’s expansive terrain from the Amazonian rain forest to the wetlands of Pantanal. Fittingly, the Brazilian flag is a jewel-like emerald green in color and depicts the outline of the world.
After our day of recovery in Corumba we valiantly boarded what ended up being a 30-hour bus ride to Rio de Janeiro. The hardest part about a 30-hour bus ride is the last 8 hours or so. It requires a heroic effort to maintain a healthy mental composure while in such dire circumstances. A person needs the serenity and inner-peace of Siddhartha, working in tangent with the ass-kicking endurance of Charles Bronson.
In addition to the obvious pains inflicted by 30 hours on a bus, it ended up being the price of the ticket that really wounded us. The price per person was 220 Reais (pronounced hay-ice) which equate to a scorching $120 u.s.d. I repeat, that was the price for a bus, not a flight! In other South American countries, a similar bus ride would have been anywhere from $30- $55. It proved to be a depressing experience for both our psyches and our budgets.
Our non-stop bus trip was so long that it required 6 different drivers. The transfers from driver to driver made it feel as if the bus were an Olympic torch being passed from one runner to the next. We finally arrived in Rio’s main bus terminal around 7:00 p.m. on Friday night. We immediately took a cab to the Flamengo district and found a cheap hotel for the night. When I say “cheap,” I’m referring to the quality of the hotel, not the price, which was still expensive by our standards.
We have now spent the last 5 days here in Rio, and I can certainly say we love it. It’s probably my second favorite big city we have visited so far on our Central and South America trip, ranking not far behind my overall favorite: Panama City.
Rio is very cosmopolitan, and its streets are full of beautiful people of every skin color and shade imaginable. Walking along the boardwalks of Copacabana and Ipanema feel like walking along a catwalk at an international fashion show. It’s glamorous, it’s fabulous, it’s Rio.
Our first full day here was spent exploring the districts of Gloria, Lapa, and Santa Teresa. The highlight of the day was riding on the charming Bonde trolley through the neighborhood of Santa Teresa. Santa Teresa is a bohemian community full of old colonial mansions and rolling hills. It’s a neighborhood that would fit nicely in San Francisco, and the Bonde trolley definitely adds to this feeling. The trolley only costs 30 cents to ride, but if you stand on the thin wooden side-rail, and hang off the side, it’s free. We of course opted to do it like the locals and hung off the side. Riding the trolley in this manner made us feel like ninjas from an old kung-fu movie. We decided a movie could be made about us called American Trolley Ninjas in Rio.
Trouble struck our trolley when it encountered a car parked along the track. Although the trolley shares the road with cars, everybody in Rio knows you can’t park your car too close to the tracks. The owner of the car was not around so we and some other trolley-ninjas had to take matters into our own hands. As the pictures will show, we had to use our combined trolley-ninja training to bounce the car off the road. For all I know, this may be an everyday occurrence, but it seemed to take on epic proportions at the time. Once our mission was accomplished, our entire trolley burst into applause. We bashfully took our bows — it was just another day on the job for trolley-ninjas like us.
That night we got to bed around 10:30 p.m. The partying on the streets was loud enough to keep us awake, so we lay there silently, in the dark, unable to sleep. It was then that we realized that it was Saturday night in Rio de Janeiro!!! What the hell were we doing in bed at 10:30? We quickly got dressed again and headed out to carouse and cause trouble on the streets of Rio. We ended up checking out a couple of different clubs, both of which were multi-level affairs, set in beautiful 19th century mansions. The nightlife in Rio is certainly alive and kicking. There were throngs of people both at the clubs and out on the streets. We didn’t make it back to our hotel until around 4:30 a.m.
Our second day in Rio was spent sleeping until nearly 2:00 in the afternoon. After that we walked around the district of Botafogo and checked out Sugarloaf Mountain. Sugarloaf Mountain is a 600 million-year-old limestone peak that juts out of the water along the coast of the city. There is a cable car that you can take to the summit of Sugarloaf, but at a price of $20 each we opted to skip it.
We started off the next day with breakfast at our favorite Rio juice bar, Big Nectar. Rio is jam-packed with great juice bars serving an array of exotic fruit juices. Our favorite juice is made from the Amazonian super-fruit called açai. It is known for being one of the strongest natural anti-oxidants in the world and has a terrific flavor that tastes like chocolate-covered blueberries. Although you can find forms of açai in certain specialty food stores in the U.S., they simply don’t compare to a fresh glass, blended right in front of you.
After our fix of coffee, acai and pastries, we walked to the cog-train station at the bottom of Corcovado Mountain. Corcovado Mountain is a unique hump-shaped peak that overlooks Rio from the west. Fittingly, the name Corcovado actually means “hunchback.” It is on top of this towering peak that the famous statue of Christo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) looms with his arms outstretched.
Although the cog-train to the top of Corcovado was also $20, this was one attraction we could not pass up. After the 20 minute train ride, we arrived at the top. At over 700 meters above the city, arriving at the summit of Corcovado felt like arriving at an island in the sky. We were well above a majority of the clouds, and the views of Rio were breathtaking, albeit a little cloudy.
In addition to the wonderful views, the placid-faced statue of the 39.6-meter-high, 700 ton statue was truly a marvelous vision to behold. Christo Redentor is both the icon for Rio de Janeiro as well as its guardian angel. It certainly deserves its recently elevated position to be included among the new seven wonders of the world. The only annoying part of the experience was witnessing every tourist replicate the same outstretched arm pose for a cheesy, candid photo.
The next day we spent walking around the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema. As I wrote before, this is the place where the beautiful people are. It is a very posh area of town, similar to South Beach in Miami. I was surprised to learn that the original Copacabana is actually the fishing village that we visited in Bolivia along the shores of Lake Titicaca. For some reason I had assumed the more famous Copacabana of Rio must be the original.
A lot of the high-rise neighborhoods around this area reminded me of Central Park West in NYC. If you had the bank role, it would be easy to make Rio de Janeiro your home base. Like Panama City, it is not only a great place to visit, but would also be a great place to live for the rest of your life. We are going to spend another day or so here before heading south. Right now I’m not sure if we’re going to visit Sao Paulo or skip it and head straight for the beaches of Florianopolis.
We are continuing on our adventure unimpeded. No boundary, be it physical or mental, will stop our relentless march upon the capital cities of the world. We are chasing the muse at all cost. To each place we bring our own personal style, our own unique way of seeing the world, and creating it as we see fit. Sensitivity, humor, and imagination are the tools required when traveling through the topography of the world, and of the mind. In each place we are building tiny empires, like sandcastles on the beach.