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February 16, 2012
Day -2: Rio de Janeiro: Our South American adventure begins

Gail and Russell at Copacabana Beach. It took a local fellow 25 days to craft these sand sculptures.

On Tuesday morning, February 15, Russell’s sister Joanne came to our house at 7:00 am to drive us to San Francisco airport. Our flight wouldn’t depart until 1:20 pm that afternoon, but Joanne had to drive us before going in to work.

One of the first disagreements that Gail and Russell had in planning the trip was whether to fly first class or not. Gail wanted comfort during our red-eye flight. Russell wanted to save the frequent flier miles he had been accumulating for years. Gail finally said, “What are you saving them for?” Because she was in charge of logistics, that pretty much settled it.

Gail’s was the wiser head. With five hours to spend at the airport, we were able to pass the time in the first-class Admiral’s Club lounge. While there wasn’t a lot of free food, there were crackers and bananas.

Our first leg was a five-hour flight from San Francisco to Miami. Our Miami layover was less than two hours in a much more crowded Admirals’ Club lounge. Our second leg was an eight-and-a-half hour flight from Miami to Rio de Janeiro.

The second flight was the red-eye, and though we were officially in business class, it was the same set-up as the previous first class. Our seats reclined almost horizontally, we got pillows and blankets, and we were served several hot meals. Unfortunately, neither of us got much sleep.

We landed in Rio at 11:00 am Brazilian time (six hours ahead of California). We were excited to see two of Rio’s most famous landmarks – the statue of Christ the Redeemer and Păo de Áçucar (Sugarloaf Mountain) – as the plane taxied down the runway after landing. After waiting in lines for immigration, luggage retrieval and customs, we finally found ourselves in the hot and humid air of Brazil.

Gail has been meticulous in her pre-planning, which included reserving a shuttle from the airport to the hotel. Unfortunately, the little old shuttle driver was trying to coordinate a dozen other people who also reserved rides to different hotels. After almost an hour, we finally got on the third shuttle.

The scene outside Rio’s airport: lots of Americans waiting for hotel shuttles

The official cruise line hotel for Rio is the Sheraton. Boy, are we glad we didn’t book that! It’s up a hill next to a shanty town (favela) in the middle of nowhere. You have to take a taxi to get anywhere.

The traffic in Rio is ridiculously heavy. There are actually street vendors who stand between the lanes of traffic selling water bottles and other paraphenalia.

Rio’s landmark, the statue of Christ the Redeemer atop Corcovado Mountain, as seen from the shuttle bus. Given Gail’s dislike of heights and edges, this may be the closest we get to it.

Instead, Gail had found us a great hotel right on Copacabana beach. Our room is sparse and doesn’t have a view, but we’re only here for two nights. (Yes, we know that “Day -2” isn’t mathematically correct, but who wants to have a “Day Zero”?) We’ve already had some problems. There are no washcloths in the room. (Apparently, Brazilians don’t use them.) Our sink didn’t drain, so we had a guy come up with a plunger. He fixed it, but left the bathroom counter and floor covered with water and mud. After awhile, Gail simply gave up contacting the front desk to complain.

The Golden Tulip Regente Hotel and our room

Unfortunately, the power outlets in the room are all Brazilian, so we spent the afternoon walking around trying to buy a power adapter. While we were out, we saw the local neighborhoods and bought a sandwich from a corner shop, though figuring out how to pay was a unique experience. So far, we have not found the language barrier to be a problem. Many locals do not speak English, but they are very kind and patient with us. We also hooked up with some other American cruisers from the Cruise Critics website. We also hooked up with some other cruisers from the Cruise Critic website.

The Golden Tulip Hotel (on the left) is right on the Copacabana Beach, with its famous black and white sidewalk. Two-thirds of the way to the right is Păo de Áçucar (Sugarloaf Mountain), with its cable cars. Again, this may be the closest we get to it.

Walking around Rio is certainly a cultural experience. There are typically no lane markings on multi-lane highways; and even when there are, the cars ignore them. Jaywalking is rampant. To get from the hotel to the beach, we have to cross three lanes of traffic going one way to get to a median strip. Then we have to cross three more lanes of traffic going the other way to get to a narrow curb. But there’s still one more obstacle: a set of bike lanes running in both directions before the main sidewalk.

Unlike the movie stereotypes, we found Rio to be much more conservative than we expected. The beach is full of people sunbathing, playing volleyball and soccer. But there is no nude sunbathing, and few scantily-clad bodies. In fact, it’s mostly the men who walk around topless and in speedos.

We are still fairly tired and jet-lagged, so we walked to dinner at a cheap local restaurant down the beach. (Gail had brought a bag of snacks – including home-made potato chips – but she accidentally left it on the plane.) As we perused the various tourist restaurants, Gail was intrigued by a pizzeria that offered a “corn, bacon and mushroom pizza.” She pronounced the concept better than the execution. During this second walk – at night – we saw street vendors, street performers, a fellow on the beach doing martial arts acrobatics, and an entire market that only comes out after dark.

Tomorrow is our one and only full day in Rio. Gail says if we do nothing but walk on the beach, it will be a day well spent.

Copacabana Beach at night (taken from the rooftop of the Golden Tulip Hotel).
Left: To the northeast is hotel row.
Right: To the southwest is the Forte de Copacabana, which separates Copacabana Beach from Ipanema Beach.(


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