Posted by: Alex MacGregor | August 3, 2013

To The Mines!

Being a bit beached-out at this point, we made our way north to Minas Gerais state, which we read is full beautiful colonial cities.

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We’re definitely in agreement with the people around the world who flock to these colonial gems. We chose to visit the most popular colonial city–Ouro Preto (“Black Gold”).

True to our form, we rarely go anywhere without a somewhat dramatic travel experience first.

Getting to Ouro Preto (OP) requires a 7-hour bus ride, which we elected to do overnight to maximize our travel time. This meant a nighttime departure from Rio’s main bus station.

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A good plan in theory, but as the bus departure loomed and we couldn’t get a hostel or pousada on the phone to save our lives, we didn’t have any reservations.

After a teeth-chatteringly cold night on the hyper-air-conditioned bus, we realized that we hadn’t accounted for some pretty painful facts: it would be about 5AM when the bus arrived, pitch black, and quite chilly.

On arrival, we decided that finding accommodation was the first priority. Our guidebook talked about some popular options near the bus station, which we walked to. At the first one, the bell simply wouldn’t wake the night guard, and we gave up. The second was closed–for good.

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Thus began one of the most trying travel situations we’ve ever had to deal with. Here’s Caroline, trudging down an unpaved road in the frigid darkness with all of her stuff. Not a happy time.

We went back to the bus station and looked at the hotel across the street. 250 reais ($125) a night, and it didn’t seem very friendly or convenient. This was starting to rival the time we had to trudge through miles of tidal flats, beaches, and even ford a river to reach our beach hut in Mozambique.

Eventually, we got a taxi into town and, after trying unsuccessfully at a couple more places, asked the cabbie for his advice. He took us to a pousada he knew was open, which let us sit in the lobby waiting for the sun to rise and for a room to become available. Still very cold, but at least we had found shelter.

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Stepping outside at sunrise, we realized the place was worth the hassle.

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Caroline after the rough morning.

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We wandered around a lot that morning, waiting for our room to become available and soaking up the colonial ambiance.

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OP truly is spectacular. I’d say it’s the most beautiful small colonial city we have been to–and we’ve seen our fair share.

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Ouro Preto rose to prominence in the 1700s, the site of a major gold rush. The city’s gold rush was so long-lived and lucrative that it became among the largest settlements in the New World, and filled with wealthy merchants and high society. (I can’t help draw a contrast with Jerome, Arizona, which is interesting because its mining rush was so rough-and-tumble and short-lived.)

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The city’s location in a steep valley means that fabulous panoramas abound.

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The view from our Pousada’s breakfast terrace.

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Steep streets!

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The city’s former wealth is readily apparent in its grandiose buildings. It was a major seat of government until the 20th century, when that business also packed up and left for nearby Belo Horizonte. With both mining and government at a halt, development ceased and the town was frozen in time.

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OP boasts a seemingly-endless supply of incredible baroque churches. Each is intricately carved and in impeccable condition.

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The latter church–Igreja de São Francisco de Assis–is possibly the most striking of the bunch, and arguably one of the finest colonial carvings in the world (or so say the experts on the matter).

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The hand-carved entrance.

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Unfortunately, no pictures were allowed in any of the churches. You’ll just have to visit yourself to see what they look like!

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The city is basically laid out like a big spider web of beautiful colonial streets winding from one praça (plaza) to the next, each containing an amazing colonial church.

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Perhaps it’s an understatement to say that this gives you quite the thigh workout after a while. Brazil may not have a Flywheel like Seattle, but this certainly is better than nothing!

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Good luck, little Beetle!

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If walking in OP is tough, driving isn’t much better. The cobblestone lanes were definitely not laid out with the automobile in mind. Micro-traffic jams pop up whenever cars meet each other in the bottlenecks.

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(Sorry I keep posting random pictures of this place. Its beauty just doesn’t quit!)

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To the east of the tourist district, a small river cuts through town, delineating the old slave quarter. The housing in this part of town is far more basic, and the hills are even worse than the rest of OP.

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Much of OP’s wealth is built on the labor of slaves, who comprised the vast majority of its population during the early boom years.

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At the top of the hill east of town sits the seldom-visited Igreja de Santa Efigênia, the church built by and for slaves, and named for an Ethiopian saint. It was closed without explanation during our visit.

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The cemetery out back.

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Despite being a top-tier tourist destination, OP doesn’t feel very gringo-fied at all. It’s still home to about 70,000 Brazilians. In addition, the vast majority of tourism the city gets is Brazilian.

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The winter festival was going on as we visited.

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As far a as cuisine goes, we had our pick of traditional Minas food…

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…and an abundance of mouth-watering pizza!

Definitely a wonderful place to explore and relax for a few days.

Posted by: Alex MacGregor | July 13, 2013

A Change of Pace in Ilha Grande

A ways outside of Rio (actually only 60 miles as the crow flies, but in Brazil that’s some serious distance), lies the picture-perfect tropical island of Ilha Grande.

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In Brazil, this relatively short journey takes a solid four hours. As we arrived, the island was shrouded in rain and fog.

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Come morning, the crystal-clear view from our pousada’s breakfast terrace was almost unrecognizable.

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Ilha Grande is similar in a couple ways to Morro de São Paulo–it’s an island getaway from a major Brazilian city, where cars aren’t allowed.

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But the similarities seem to end there. Ilha Grande served as a penal colony for much of the 20th century, thus protecting it from development. Nowadays, nearly the entire tourist infrastructure lies in the town of Abraão, far away from the island’s main tourist attractions and beaches. Thus if your goal is to jam out to techno music on the beach at 2AM, you’ll have to head elsewhere (shucks!).

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Abraão is instead a pleasant tourist town, with lots of decent pousadas to crash at after a long day of hiking. During the daytime, the town empties as tourists head to the island’s many natural delights.

Our daytime destination was a common one, and most likely the island’s most famous: Praia Lopes Mendes. The beach is a three-hour hike from town.

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Caroline in the forest.

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Abraão from the trail.

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The view back towards Brazil’s mainland.

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A washed out bridge along the trail.

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At times, the trail follows beaches. Perfectly nice-looking beaches, but not what people travel around the world for.

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Eventually, we piked up a “guide” of sorts in this little black dog. He had a collar and all, but seemed content in following us for well over an hour.

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Our dog guide watches as Caroline descends an unsteady stairway.

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Made it!

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Lopes Mendes consistently ranks among the best beaches in Brazil, and cracks lists of the top beaches in the world as well.

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With clean, powdery sand, absolutely zero development and crowds, and waves for both surfing and swimming, it’s hard to imagine a beach getting much better than this.

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Marine life washed ashore

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We wanted to hike back to town as well, but an annoying recurring knee injury made me feel it would be better to take the ferry, which runs from a nearby beach.

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Since we traveled during the low season (how much better can summer be?), we were able to get a nice room at the charming Pousada Pedacinho de Ceu at a good price…

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…complete with Snow White themed gardens.

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On our way back from the island to Rio, the ferry landing point of Conceição de Jacareí occupies yet another stunning piece of Brazilian shoreline. There’s just too much to explore!

Posted by: Caroline | July 12, 2013

Rio’s Nightlife

You’ve heard about South American nightlife, right? About how last call isn’t really a concept and revelers stay out until sunrise?

Yeah, it’s true.

Plenty of guidebooks will tell you that Lapa is a hip nightlife area, but what they won’t mention is that it is THE area. If you’re in Rio for only a short time and looking for a way to spend your evening…and night…and morning… make it Lapa.

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The first few hours of your night, you should spend at a cafe with a group of new friends from the hostel, a few good appetizers (including $1.50 chicken skewers off the street if you can’t afford the cafe’s, since no one really seems to mind), and a tower of beer.

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If you’re lucky, a UFC fight featuring a Brazilian national hero will be on TV.

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But after the cafe, the real party is in the streets. Lax open container regulations mean plenty of pop-up vendors line the streets ready to extend your evening with a few fresh-squeezed caipirinhas.

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In addition to the more established restaurants, plenty of smaller venues set up shop in the back alleys of Lapa. We spotted one minor beer vendor–based out of a rolling cooler–who went through the trouble of setting up an electronic DJ beside the spot of chain-link fence he had claimed. It added some nice variety to the pop and samba (Brazilian style of music linked to Carnaval) already blasting in the streets.

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There’s also plenty of visual interest, with grafitti …

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… and the tiles of the Lapa steps, which look much different–both in terms of the art and of the crowd–at nightfall.

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Once you’re done wandering the streets, it’s about 3am and you’re ready to go to a real Rio nightclub.

Since I can count on one finger the number of authentic nightclubs I have been to in Atlanta, I may not be the foremost authority on this topic, but I am still going to venture to say: clubbing in Rio is one of the strangest, most expensive nightlife experiences on offer in this world.

First, you show your identification to the doorman. Never mind that passports don’t fit in your pocket, and even if they did it would be less-than-wise to keep them there. So you’ve got to shuffle into your secret leg money belt–the main advantage of which is that NO ONE KNOWS YOU ARE WEARING IT. But, oh well, now they do.

Ok, now you’re in. Wait… someone else needs to see your identification.

Alright, now someone’s got to pat you down. (Ladies, you’re exempt; just smile nicely.)

Next, you get your “credit” card. It’s conveniently pre-loaded with your cover, which will run you on average about R$40 (or about $20). You might be able to save some serious cash by going earlier; check TimeOut Rio for the details before you go.

This card is the way you pay for your drinks, which cost you about 2-3 times what they will from the friendly pop-up vendors from earlier in the night. Make sure to drink slowly, because once you’re finished, you’re expected to buy another. A server will remind you of that if necessary. Multiple times.

Ready to head home? Look for your card.

If you lost your card, your life is over. Hope you had a fun night.

If you didn’t lose your card, you take it to this boarded-up looking area that says “caixa.” You won’t be able to see inside, but trust me, there’s a person. Hand them your card, let them print out the far-too-long receipt, and pay your tab.

Many Brazilian establishments feature this payment system where only one person handles the cash. We brainstormed some reasons why this would happen, especially in a club. We figured it 1) reduces the chance of patron theft 2) reduces the chance of employee theft (as in the American style of pocketing the cash from pouring a liquor drink that can’t be tracked) and 3) in the event of a hold-up, all the cash is in one well-guarded place.

Thankfully, no hold ups!

We spent time at 2 clubs. One was a backpacker-centric deafening dud (Lapa Loca on Friday night). In general, avoid backpacker events.

The other was an absolutely lovely, leafy outdoor space with moderate-volume electronic music and a suave, fashionable crowd (00 in Gavea on Sunday night). Highly recommended (although they host their own backpacker event on Tuesdays, and I can’t speak to the quality of that).

We didn’t even attempt Fosfobox in Copacobana due to the $R50 cover. (What?!?!)

Although clubbing in Rio is in general a hassle, it can be a lot of fun. Just do your research, and plan on spending most of your night soaking up the ambience of the streets. Who needs to dance in a club anyway? Just go find that electronic DJ by the cooler.

Posted by: Alex MacGregor | July 12, 2013

Rio de Janeiro, Beachside

Most foreign tourists in Rio make a bee-line to the legendary Copacabana beach, and the large urban neighborhood that abuts it, where many of the city’s reasonably-priced (relatively speaking) accommodations can be found.

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With beachside relaxation like this on offer, why wouldn’t you choose Copacabana?

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Unhappily, there are definitely reasons to spend your time in Rio elsewhere. Although the world’s image of the neighborhood hasn’t caught up to reality yet, it would do foreign travelers well to understand that this is a big-city environment with its fair share of urban grit.

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Most importantly, the various mountains that rise above Copacabana’s urban grid are lined with favelas–hillside slums. Although most favela-dwellers are working poor struggling to get by, these areas provide a ready supply of muggers as well. After crimes are committed, criminals merely need to escape to their favelas, which are inaccessible by car and sometimes ignored by police altogether.

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Horror stories abound. We met a couple from Atlanta who came to Brazil with some friends. On their friends’ first day in Brazil, they strolled down the main beachfront drag at 7PM and were mugged. (The victims headed straight to the airport and back to the USA.) The mugging was done in the Brazilian way: relatively spontaneous and in an open area. Brazilian muggers don’t need their victims to be completely isolated–the road was reasonably busy at that time–they just need about ten seconds to demand the victim’s stuff and take off to the nearest favela (or, at night, the beach itself, which becomes a no-go zone after dark).

Granted, 7PM is pitch black in Rio’s July, the beachside road is known for being unsavory, and bad things can and do happen anywhere. But that all begs the question: why is the beachfront road in Copacabana so sketchy? Why is it dangerous to walk a few blocks down a less-than-mobbed street at night?

In a way, I think Centro’s problems are less of a hindrance to Rio than Copacabana’s problems. Copacabana is a major hotel district, and where many tourists with any sense of thrift will end up. A night in the most basic of its many aging hotels will run at least US$100 per night. More commonly, for a decent room, you’re looking at $200 (nicer districts are even more expensive). These are New York City prices, to stay in a neighborhood where getting mugged on the way home from dinner is all-too-possible, and where certain streets aren’t advisable to walk down on weekends.

(We stayed in dorm beds during our time in Copacabana, which generally run $30 or so.)

Many younger tourists now opt for trendier areas closer to Centro like Santa Teresa, Catete, Botafogo, and Flamengo, where somewhat cheaper rooms can be found.

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All this is not to say Copacabana isn’t enjoyable. It’s a really walkable area that feels a lot like New York at times.

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Brazilians have a love of Natural Products and health foods. These sorts of stores are common throughout Rio’s neighborhoods, rich and poor.

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Somewhat contradictorily, Brazilians also love sweets, and produce them in many tantalizing varieties.

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Our favorite treat: the Brigadiero. It’s a truffle-like chocolate ball covered in sprinkles. Delicious!

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Christ Redeemer pokes through the buildings at dusk.

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My recommendation for anyone visiting Rio would be to strive to find accommodation in the much nicer and safer Ipanema area (or even more exclusive Leblon).

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Further from slums and a wealthier area in general, Ipanema’s beach scene is on another level from anything I’ve ever witnessed. There must be many thousands of young people lounging and relaxing on the beach on a given weekend day. Definitely something you have to see for yourself.

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The streets in Ipanema are also a lot less crowded and hectic, remain vibrant on nights and weekends, and contain much more in the way of international brands and upscale, trendy restaurants. The area seems worth the extra money, frankly.

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When it comes to the Olympics, however, I have a few reservations. The metro system is only now being extended to serve Ipanema, and only a small sliver will actually have service come 2016. Ipanema offers far fewer hotels than less-pricey Copacabana, so most tourists will end up in somewhat dicier digs.

How all of this plays out, only time will tell.

Posted by: Caroline | July 11, 2013

Cidade Maravilhosa

Rio calls itself the Cidade Maravilhosa–Marvelous City–and I just don’t think it fits.

It’s a huge understatement.

Rio has everything we’ve loved about other cities–the bustle of NYC, the ambience of Paris, the scenic backdrop of Cape Town–and amps it up a notch, all wrapped up in the relaxed, joy-seeking Brazilian spirit (these are the people who put on Carnaval, after all).

For example, the city’s natural setting is unparalleled. Fortunately it offers you plenty of opportunities to soak it up. I’ll talk about two of the best here.

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Rio’s iconic Christ the Redeemer overlooks the Marvelous City from Corcovado Mountain, tucked safely away from the urban grind inside peaceful Tijuca National Forest. You can visit by train…

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… or by approved National Forest vans.

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Christ the Redeemer is omniprescent on Rio’s skyline. For days as we traveled around Rio’s different neighborhoods, it served as something of a North Star. It was incredible to finally see the massive, 600-ton statue up close.

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Not to mention the views over the Lagoa and Ipanema…

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..Sugarloaf Mountain, Botafogo Beach, and a teensy stretch of Copacabana…

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… and Rio’s largest favela (slum), Rocinha.

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With the dozens of slums creeping up hillsides, a typical Rio view is a mix of gorgeous landscapes as well as blunt reminders of the country’s enormous income gap.

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The people watching on Corcovado is almost as interesting as the stunning vistas. People swarm around Christ, wriggling on the floor with camera lenses pointed skyward to try to capture the height of the statue (98 feet) or thrusting their arms out to mimic his pose with zero regard for the people behind them (who inevitably get smacked in the face). Spending much time near the statue itself requires Christlike patience indeed. And anyway, if you followed the Cape Town link earlier in the post, you’ll see Alex has already presciently struck this pose, so we didn’t need to replicate it.

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Way less competition when you switch statue for scenery as your backdrop.

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The other must-do attraction to fully savor Rio’s landscape is Pão de Açúcar, or Sugarloaf Mountain.

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You make the cable-car journey in two steps: first, up to Morro de Urca, which gives you your first taste of the amazing panorama that awaits…

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… as well as plenty of restaurants, shops…

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… and semi-friendly marmosets.

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But the real fun starts on Pão de Açúcar. Here’s a view of the bay that gave Rio its name (Portuguese explorers mistook this bay for a river, and this happened to take place on New Year’s Day, so… Rio de Janeiro.)

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Centro.

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Copacabana Beach.

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Although visiting in the morning may provide the best lighting for photographs, overlooking the Marvelous City during sunset is pretty magical, too.

Posted by: Alex MacGregor | July 10, 2013

Centro Rio de Janeiro

After leaving the tropical Bahia region of Brazil, our next destination was a common one for foreign tourists: the illustrious city of Rio de Janeiro.

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A view of Centro, from our first hostel in Santa Teresa.

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Rio will be the subject of lots of international attention in the coming years. The city will feature prominently in the 2014 World Cup. In 2016, more importantly, the city will host the Olympics. The million dollar question: is it ready?

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If the question hinged on the city’s downtown, the answer would firmly be “no”. Downtown Rio suffers from problems that would make any blighted American downtown grateful. Like Cidade Baixa in Salvador, downtown empties at night and becomes a no-go zone. Hotels are sparse. Vibrant, crowded districts quickly give way to deserted blocks (where daylight muggings are entirely possible)–wandering around is discouraged, as is visiting the district on weekends.

(We’ll cover the other, more hopeful parts of the city in future posts.)

But, despite its grit, Centro remains an important part of the city, and hosts many of the city’s signature attractions and much of its business activity.

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A typical shopping street in centro, with no shortage of beautiful colonial Portuguese (and 19th-century Brazilian) architecture. Rio was briefly the capital of Portugal, and remains the only city outside of Europe to ever be capital of a European country.

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Centro is the city’s financial and office district. Large portions of it are occupied by glass and concrete office towers.

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I’d hate to see one of these air conditioners fall!

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The headquarters of Petrobras, Brazil’s state oil company.

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Caroline and I explore a small market downtown. A mix of tourist trinkets and discount goods.

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Now this is my kind of vendor!

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The legendary Carnival festival is held in Centro. They even have a stadium for the event, with the parade route passing through the middle. For the rest of the year, the site plays host to the handful of events that require a long, thin stadium (such as the ever-important motorcycle drag races)…

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…and peddles Carnival-related kitsch.

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The Metropolitan Cathedral, like that of Managua, is a spectacular modern church.

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Rio’s impressive Teatro Municipal.

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In keeping with my well-documented love of trains in all forms, we took the metro downtown. Never have I seen a less organized, more confusing system. Even the Cariocas (residents of Rio) kept asking metro workers how the thing works. Trains would arrive from different directions on different platforms, seemingly without pattern–and it’s not like the system’s layout is particularly complicated. The bus system is far easier and more convenient, I’m sorry to say.

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We spent some time wandering around Rio’s open-air markets.

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Hectic crowds jammed into old, colonial lanes make this a fascinating place to wander…

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…for a while. This cafe was an oasis amid the madness.

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A more salubrious option for colonial ambiance is the Travesso do Comercio.

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The narrow lane is teeming with European-style cafes, and makes all the nearby hustle and bustle feel miles away.

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Just a few blocks away, Avenida Presidente Vargas is exactly the opposite. An imposing street if there ever were one!

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In the median of Vargas is the Igreja da Candelária, looking completely out of place among the skyscrapers.

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The church is among Brazil’s most impressive, but seemed mostly deserted of tourists and locals alike.

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On the southside of downtown is a real crowd-pleaser of an attraction: the Lapa Steps.

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The stairway includes tiles from all over the world.

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Visitors wander the steps in search of tiles from home.

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Found it!

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Someone put a lot of effort into this mosaic of Africa–they even made a little hole in South Africa for Lesotho!

Posted by: Caroline | July 10, 2013

Morro de São Paulo

After a few days sampling Salvador’s blend of charm and grime, we were ready for some authentic relaxation in the beach-lined, car-free island village of Morro de São Paulo. Even if it meant hours rocking on the treacherous, stomach-twisting waves of the Atlantic…

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… which it did. (Note the plastic bags tied to each seat.)  Thanks to a tip from our hostel in Salvador, we stocked up on dramamine at the pharmacy beforehand to quell any queasiness on the catamaran. The antihistamine doubles as a sleep inducer, which comes in handy when the catamaran company selling tickets at the dock fails to tell you your 2-hour catamaran has instead become a 1-hour ferry, 2-hour bus ride, and 1-hour catamaran journey because it’s a little cheaper when they don’t have a full boat to the island. So there was plenty to sleep through.

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But the island of Tinharé coming into view was more than enough to rouse me from my drugged slumber.

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Many people choose to stay as close as they can to the beaches, called praias. Segunda Praia, pictured above,  is a sun-drenched playground of teeny-bikini-clad Brazilians and caipirinha-sipping tourists by day, and a breezy bar, club, and restaurant district by night–where the tourists are still sipping capirinhas. In case you’ve never had the dubious pleasure of a caipirinha, it’s  cachaça (sugarcane alcohol) mixed with sugar and limes. And it’s strong.

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We decided to stay further away from the action, up the main street. Why?

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THIS. Enjoying breakfast with this view each morning was one of the highlights of our trip. The pousada, called Villa Bahia, is run by German expat Werner and his girlfriend Ce. They were enormously hospitable, warm hosts, cooking up fresh eggs and bacon each morning to go with our traditional Brazilian breakfast, recommending the best beach spots and restaurants, and sharing beers and stories on the incredible terrace. Werner built this slice of paradise, including his own home high on the cliff, the 3 apartments below it, and the garden surrounding it. Most impressively, he circumvented the problems of using donkeys to carry materials from the dock (remember, no cars) by building his own elevator to transport supplies up from the beach below. Fellow travelers, if you need a place to stay in Morro, I cannot recommend Villa Bahia more highly!

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Werner’s place is tucked away in the forest but conveniently located next to the finest home-cooking in Morro. We devoured this shrimp strew, a welcome labor of love in a village full of tourist-oriented pizza and pasta joints.

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Even the best Brazilian cooking on the island isn’t immune to inflation. Prices in pencil keep things flexible.

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Brazil’s fresh seafood is only rivaled by its tropical fruits. Segunda Praia is lined with these mouthwatering stalls. You choose up to 3 fruits–most of which don’t have English translations because they aren’t available even at our most comprehensive farmer’s markets, so you just point to what looks tasty and trust the bartenders to pick complementary fruits–and a healthy shot of cachaça if you wish. They chop it and shake it up for you on the spot, pouring your fruity, frothy drink into a plastic cup for you to enjoy seaside.

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After a day of lounging on the beach, we decided to go explore the island since Morro’s beaches are only a fraction of its sights. Werner recommended a relaxed, reggae-loving tour guide, who thankfully was the one actually commanding our boat. Alex looks the part, though, doesn’t he?

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Our tour guide picked us up at a little beach near Werner’s place first, then we collected several more passengers–mostly Brazilians and Argentines–until the boat was full. We headed south to the nearby island of Boipeba, spotting a pod of dolphins on the way. Cruising past Morro’s crowded praias, it’s easy to see how a lack of cars shapes the island’s geography. Once we got beyond easy walking distance from the dock, the island seemed almost untouched. But Boipeba seems even more pristine with only a few restaurants and pousadas on its shores.

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It was a pleasant half-hour walk along the beach and through forest to reach Boipeba Village.

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After Boipeba, we rode through dense mangrove forest…

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…and stopped at a floating oyster restaurant.

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Perfect with a little lime, salt, and hot sauce!

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Our final stop was on Cairu Island.

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This young guide showed us around the Portuguese-built church.

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I was sad to leave–and not just because of the stomach-churning journey back to the mainland!

Posted by: Alex MacGregor | July 7, 2013

Cidade Baixa, Salvador

From our hostel’s window in Salvador, we could get a glimpse into a part of the city I found utterly fascinating: Cidade Baixa.

Salvador’s unique geography actually divides its downtown in two. Cidade Alta (the “upper city”) is where we, and nearly all tourists, chose to spend nearly all of our time (and what all of Caroline’s post is about). But what about Cidade Baixa (the “lower city”), which you occasionally get a glance over from the safety of the carefully-policed tourist district?

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The area is emblematic of a problem that many Brazilian business districts seem to deal with. During business hours, the area bustles and is safe. But at night, or on weekends, you’d best stay away. Shops close, security guards go home, and the area becomes a ghost town. Sounds like a great place to visit, huh?

But, since the city’s ferry dock is in the area, we had cause to check out the area (during working hours, of course).

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Our first attempt to go to Baixa, to buy ferry tickets, was thwarted by protests. The protesters chose to barricade the only reliable, safe way of getting down to Baixa.

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We persevered, and the next day we made our way to the 200-foot high Elevador Lacerda. Built in the late 1800s and refurbished a couple times since, it’s the way the everyone goes between Alta and Baixa–either the elevator, or a taxi. You’d be an utter fool to go on foot.

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Baixa from the elevator. If you walked from Alta to Baixa, you’d go down the road on the right: a deserted street with no chance to escape. I’m not sure we’ve ever been to a country that has relatively-safe and completely-off-limits areas juxtaposed quite like this.

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Waiting in line for the elevator. Three elevators run all day, but the crowds frequently overwhelm it.

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The elevator from below.

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mercado modelo

Mercado Modelo, the city’s main tourist market, is at the foot of the elevator.

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Baixa’s streets frequently reminded us of different places we have been. The sterile, concrete-and-glass expanse of the center’s business streets couldn’t help but remind us of Portuguese-speaking Maputo, if only a little.

street como paris

A couple blocks look downright Parisian.

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street como havana

Other areas, still, scream Havana.

baixa old

No matter what city Baixa is standing in for, it certainly could use some rehabilitation. But, given the area’s double-life as the city’s commercial center and a dangerous dead zone, it seems unlikely help will come any time soon.

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Baixa was the first place where I got to try Brazil’s take on a new health trend in the US–coconut water. I’ve enjoyed the canned stuff in the US several times now…

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…but how can that compete with the real thing?

tourist caricatures

According to this tourist map, caricatured tourists sometimes flood Baixa from cruise ships, although we didn’t witness the phenomenon in person.

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As our ferry pulled away from Baixa, en route to our next destination, I snapped a few pics of Salvador from the sea. The old, crumbling buildings of Baixa below, and the relative prosperity and order of Alta above.

ferry vitoria

Naturally, neither Baixa nor Alta is actually what wealthy Brazilians call home. Salvador’s elite favor the highrise districts of Vitoria and Barra, a little further down the peninsula.

Posted by: Caroline | July 4, 2013

Salvador de Bahia

It seems we’re making a tradition of visiting World Cup host countries about a year before the big event. Guess that means you know where we’ll be in 2017 (Russia) and 2021 (Qatar)!

worldcup

Coca-Cola is clearly not on the side of Brazilians outraged about the number of new stadiums the government built while simultaneously raising public transit prices… but they do make a charming mural.

We decided to make Brazil our summer (or their winter) destination this year because Alex had already acquired a swanky business visa and visited Sao Paulo. With my shiny new tourist visa in hand (valid for 10 years, thank goodness, because this country is quickly becoming a favorite), we wanted to go experience more of what Brazil has to offer.

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Little did we know it would be so difficult to actually get to the country to experience it. Our flight from Atlanta was delayed by 10 hours because of a “malfunctioning light bulb,” causing us to miss our GOL Airlines connection from Brasilia to Salvador.

pelourinho touristy

But with the help of about half of the employees at the Brasilia airport, we arrived in Salvador, the capital of the Bahia State. We reached the center at midnight and were a little apprehensive about the reveler-filled streets in a brand new city (apparently a festival had just ended), but the city is far more approachable in the daylight. The Pelourinho, where we stayed, is the old center, full of churches, colonial architecture…

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…and intimidating staircases. Who needs Flywheel when this is the hike to your hostel?

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The rainy season is just ending in Salvador, but we still had to escape a few downpours.

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Thank goodness there are plenty of cafes where we could wait out the storms. Unlike many coffee-producing countries we’ve visited, the coffee here is strong and lovely!

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The remnants of the Sao Joao festival keep the streets of the Pelourinho vibrant.

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africa

Salvador was the capital of the country’s slave trade, so African influences permeate the city’s culture. Its African roots are obvious in its cultural houses, its music and dance performances (like capoiera, an incredible dance-inspired style of defense), …

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… and its food. Here, Alex samples acaraje, a delicious shrimp-filled fritter.

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Brazil’s food–whether in Bahia or elsewhere–really sets it apart from other Latin American travel experiences. Forget the basic meat, rice, and beans of the comedor. Here, prepare for buffets stocked with stuffed eggplants, lentils with veggies, quiche, pumpkin, guacamole, beet salad, and perfectly cooked fish, chicken, or beef.

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This particular spread was featured at Renne, a pay-by-the-kilo spot near the Igreja de São Francisco. They also whip up fresh passionfruit juice to complement your meal.

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Perfect spot by the window!

Salvador is home to many, many churches (igrejas).

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ig sao francisco sign

Ok, I won’t play in the objects, but…

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… it was hard to resist further inspecting this cabinet of limbs.

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ig saofranciscotomb

Tombs are a significant feature of churches here.

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Salvador will be a host city for the 2014 World Cup, and despite discontent over the excessive stadium-building, FIFA can count on plenty of Brazilian fans who will brave a rainstorm to watch a match.

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Posted by: Caroline | May 23, 2013

Vancouver BC

If you’ve mentioned Vancouver to someone who’s visited, you’ve probably noticed the wide-eyed, dreamy response you get. “VANCOUVER!” they’ll gush. “It’s BEAUTIFUL!” And it really is. The fairy-tale mountains rising above glassy water right next to gorgeously modern high rises would be enough to enchant anyone. But the international flair (especially the food!) and Canadian spirit (really, everyone is painfully courteous–Atlanta drivers, take note) cement it as a worthy travel destination.

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The convention center looks over the harbor.

convention center view

convention center caro

convention center bald eagle

Believe it or not, I had to go to Canada to experience my first sighting of our national bird (outside of a zoo).

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convention center totem

Totem pole inside the convention center.

convention center port

Is any post of ours complete without a nod to transportation logistics? Shipping containers!

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The train station.

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A market in West End, the neighborhood where we stayed.

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Downtown.

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The Gastown district is a fun place to walk around…

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… and spot a sweater-clad dog in a boutique.

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grantville mall

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Vancouver’s crown jewel is the 1,000-acre Stanley Park.

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Beaver Lake is a serene spot that quickly makes you forget about downtown.

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stanley park bridge

View of Lions Gate Bridge from the park.

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A considerate division.

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stanley prospect point rabies

Watch out for rabies.

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Prospect Point is worth the hike.

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expensive houses

Although Vancouver always ranks well on livability lists, you better have wide pockets to live there. Whether it’s a neighborhood home…

high end construction

… or pricey new construction …

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… living by the fairy-tale mountains requires a similarly unreal amount of cash.

japanese food

Vancouver is replete with Asian cuisine options, so we decided to try something new: izakaya, which is like Japanese tapas. That baked pumpkin roll stuffed with egg was worth every Canadian cent. This popular but low-key spot even offered us blankets on this chilly night. We were so inspired that we checked out Atlanta’s izakaya restaurant (definitely not low-key–and no blankets).

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