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Our “In 10 Photos” essays include tips on exploring destinations, getting travel discounts and redemptions, and always, how to have a great time anywhere for less. Fresh off a 17-day trip to Rio de Janeiro, TPG Contributor Mitch Berman and his son, Kofi Lee-Berman, share their Brazilian adventures in both text and photos.
Sometimes, all the reason you need to visit a destination is a cheap fare — for instance, NYC-Rio de Janeiro for $562. My son and I had seen Black Orpheus, listened to tunes by Jobim, eaten in midtown Manhattan’s Little Brazil and read last year’s TPG Destination of the Week: Rio (and the travel tips a few years back), but to be honest, the low-cost flight made the travel decision for us. We found Rio one of the world’s most beautiful cities — and we have the photos to prove it.
What do you do first in Rio? Head straight for the beach. The sand is white and fine and clean in Leblon Beach, and working east, a little less clean in Ipanema and a little unclean in Copacabana.
Even in winter, the ocean was 72 degrees Fahrenheit — a bathtub by American standards, but certainly not by Rio’s. Girls were wearing boots and sweaters and rubbing the backs of their arms, and very few actually braved the water.
For the first eight days, we stayed at the charming Rio Palazzo inn, set in the hills of Santa Teresa along the steep, winding and jolting Rua Almirante Alexandrino. Lined with some of the oldest houses in the city, Rua Alexandrino’s many curves and bends offer constantly changing vistas of downtown Rio de Janeiro.
This road also leads to the studio/store of artist Getúlio Damado, a bright yellow building designed as a replica of the Santa Teresa Bondinho, the city’s electrical tram. (This tram, by the way, dates back to 1896 and has been offline for the past four years, though it’s expected back in service for next year’s Olympics.)
Getúlio makes an astonishing and prolific array of humans, creatures and other artworks from old cell phones, bottlecaps and bits of discarded anything. He’ll give you a friendly greeting, throw open locked chests of treasures and offer them to you at prices that would be criminal to accept (we paid him double).
Descend the famous mosaic Selaron Steps of Lapa and you’ll soon find yourself in Centro, the business district that offers restaurants like Confeteria Colombo and museums like CCBB, which during our visit was hosting a gigantic Picasso exhibit — and an even more gigantic line of people waiting to see it.
Also in Centro is the very peculiar Catedral São Sebastião, with its dalek-shaped exterior and its handsome interior.
Guided by the eternal wisdom of Snoop Dogg (as are we all), whose video for “Beautiful” was shot in Rio, we went to one of his prime locations, Parque Lage, despite rumors it was closed. It wasn’t closed on our first visit, but was — without notice — every time we tried to return.
Here you can enjoy a tasty lunch at the cafe inside the old mansion, explore the nearby caves and ruined castle, wander the lovely and deserted outer grounds or even visit an improbably rustic aquarium with sharks and piranhas.
For our last nine days we moved to the South Zone of Rio and the neighborhood of Vidigal, technically a favela (Brazilian slum) that has been “pacified” by the police. When we told people where we were staying, they would shrink away, exclaiming, “You’re staying in Vidigal?! How adventurous!”
Set on the steep side of Morro Dois Irmãos, Vidigal proved to be a friendly neighborhood — and the highlight of our trip. As odd as it may sound, I felt that Vidigal is comparable to Venice in terms of sheer physical beauty. Like Venice, Vidigal seems haphazardly improvised, from its half-falling-down mish-mash of façades and roofs to its snarl of telephone wires.
Vidigal also has the most amazing assortment of street art I’ve ever seen anywhere — and that includes the New York City subways in the 1980s.
Night falls heavily on Vidigal. The police don’t go into the favela for anything so trivial as shutting parties down, and even many taxis won’t go — mainly because the streets are so steep and narrow they’ll never be able to turn around. People will simply stop blasting music (much of it live) sometime around 2 am, and you’ll either have to wait it out or dance.
Over it all, Christ the Redeemer watches. The symbol of Rio and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, this 125-foot statue was created by Paul Landowski and since 1931 has been sitting atop the 2,300-foot Corcovado mountain, where you can see him from almost anywhere in the city.
We never actually made it up to Corcovado, dissuaded by the three-hour lines, but during our first two weeks in Rio, we must’ve taken a hundred photos of the statue … without getting a single good image. But Jesus is all about second chances. Just before we left, during the golden hour at Parque Lage, the clouds broke and there he was, framed by the last rays of the sun.
Credit Cards and Rio de Janeiro
Credit cards are almost universally accepted in Rio. We never go on a trip without having a new bonus to meet, and we were working on a pair of Delta Amex Business cards for the 50,000-mile bonus offer that ended in June. If you find yourself a stranger in a strange land with no new card, use a points-earning card already in your wallet with no foreign transaction fee like the Chase Sapphire Preferred, TPG’s “top all-round travel card.” For airfare, the American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card gives 3x Membership Rewards points for flights or, through Amex Travel, 4x points — but first make sure you’re getting the best price on airfare there.
Why do you want to go — or go back — to Rio?
Know before you go.
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