We are watching the World Cup Final in 2010 at a dive bar in the Lower East Side when Whitney and I begin scrolling through the list of countries that would be hosting the next few World Cups. Brazil is at the top of the list as we look at each other and nod in agreement. It’s decided…we are going to try to make it to the World Cup 2014 in Brazil. We quickly find out FIFA has their own method of distributing tickets, which basically puts our information into a lottery. Without explaining the finer details here, I’ll just say we submitted our application for “best available” hoping for tickets to follow team USA. Months pass by until late one afternoon we get the email that seals the deal; we were selected for 2 games to follow team USA as they play Portugal in Manaus and Germany in Recife.
The excitement immediately leads to continuous online searching and planning over the next few days to secure flights and hotels afraid everything will book up quickly. I end up finding a series of flights through TAM Airlines that will take us from NYC to Rio, Rio to Manaus, Manaus to Recife, Recife to Sao Paulo, and finally Sao Paulo back to NYC for right around $2000 each (definitely a good deal, especially for the World Cup).
Next thing I know we are boarding our overnight flight to Rio de Janeiro. Similar to many trips for Whitney and I, the rain is pouring down as we land.
Leaving the airport we are able to get a taxi to the Mar Ipanema Hotel after having to show our driver the name and address (keep in mind the official language of Brazil is Portuguese and although it looks similar to Spanish when written, the two languages sound nothing alike). On our way to Ipanema, an affluent neighborhood of Rio, I can hear Frank Sinatra in my head singing his song “The Girl from Ipanema.”
The hotel kindly gives us an early check-in before we stroll into the hotel restaurant and indulge in their generous breakfast spread. Expecting a “continental breakfast” to be a couple muffins and cold bagels, we were quite surprised at the buffet in front of us, breads, meats, muffins, eggs, fruits, and cake.
Apparently cake is a staple for Brazilian breakfast…I’m savoring the sweetness as Whitney as I run through our short list of “must do’s” in our next 48hrs in Rio:
1) Visit the Christ the Redeemer Statue, to experience one of the Seven Wonders of the World
2) Enjoy the overlooks of Sugarloaf Mountain, to take in the panoramic views of the city
3) Go Hang-gliding, to experience the adrenaline of flying
4) Indulge at a Brazilian steakhouse (churrascaria), to satisfy our carnivorous appetite
With intermittent rain showers coming down, we head out to explore the city. We initially get a cab to the Corcovado Mountain with Christ the Redeemer standing tall on its peak. It is about 10am and the line and crowds are outrageous when we overhear, “there are no tickets for the rest of the day” from a few other tourists speaking English nearby. Somewhat disappointed, we wave down the next taxi we see just as other unknowing tourists are climbing out and head back toward Ipanema with our tail between our legs. Nearing Copacabana Beach traffic is picking up to the point our cab is barely moving.
We decide to get out and wander around through some local markets and shops to begin to soak up some of the Brazilian culture…the soaking rain sure didn’t help.
Soon we are standing on the beach wearing a couple ponchos in the “World Cup Fan Fest” area as Columbia is out playing their opponent.
The rain is worsening when the final whistle blows as Columbia wins, so we make our way back to our hotel to dry off. Clean and dry, we use the hotel lobby computer to purchase a couple timed tickets to Christ the Redeemer tomorrow. Unfortunately the next time available is early evening, but it’s the only time we could squeeze in before leaving town. Next, we head up to our hotel’s rooftop bar for a couple drinks protected from the rain.
As we consider having dinner at the hotel the rain finally lets up and we decide to find a local restaurant instead.
A few blocks away we come across Garota de Ipanema, translated: “the girl from Ipanema.” We can’t resist the smells of steak in the air as we request a table. It turns out this is the place where the song was first written by a Brazilian musician Antonio Carlos Jobim and poet Vinicius de Moraes (apparently Frank Sinatra wasn’t the original as I thought when I arrived in Rio de Janeiro). A 15 minute wait goes quickly as we listen to the live jazz filling the air. Once seated, I quickly scan the menu, luckily there is an English version, and place our order…Steak of course. A tiny heated griddle is placed at our table with a plate of raw steak. We slowly cook one piece at a time exactly to our liking, each bite chosen to a different level of doneness. The meal is delicious, and I finally feel like I’m on vacation in Brazil.
The next morning we have a packed day: Hang-gliding, Sugarloaf Mountain, and Christ the Redeemer. These were supposed to be spread over the 2 days we were here, but the weather and crowds of day 1 left us with no other option.
The sun greets us through a few breaks in the clouds as we crawl out of bed for an early morning drive to Sao Conrado for our hang-gliding excursion. We booked this well in advance and the excitement is bubbling as we are picked up from our hotel. A 20 minute drive brings us to the hang-gliding landing area on the beach. We watch as a continuous stream of tourists glide onto the sand. The excursion runs like a “well-oiled-machine.” We are met by our guides, click through a short waiver at the Hang-Gliding Club then we are driven to the top of the Tijuca National Park for “take-off.” The kites are continuously assembled and lined up for take-off in a short queue. Once suited up in our harness a quick hang-gliding lesson ensues. We practice running while attached to our tandem jumper before finally being strapped in. I feel light as a feather as I jog across the edge of the wooden platform until the smooth air lifts me and my guide into the air. We are actually flying…held in place by a few straps and a tight grip, incredibly exhilarating.
I’m in the air for about 10 minutes and the experience is worth every penny. I soon glide onto the sand and look up to see Whitney sailing through the air above. Her smile is ear to ear as her feet touch the sand and the guide unhooks her from the kite.
We get our free t-shirts, chat with a few other travelers, and with no time to waste we get back on the road to our next stop…Sugarloaf Mountain.
Sugarloaf Mountain stands almost 1300ft at its peak above Guanabara Bay with incredible 360 degree views of Rio and the harbor. We get in the long line winding around the base of the gondola waiting for our trip to the top (the travelers here for World Cup have made all lines so much longer). It’s eventually our turn as we scramble to the edge of the gondola to get the best views. Once at the top we are in awe at the beauty surrounding us. The description is unnecessary, so I’ll just show you the photos…
Next we take a taxi back to the Christ the Redeemer Statue for our timed ticket. We climb aboard the train to the top and slowly creep up the mountain to the viewing area. The clouds partially cover the statue as we near, but soon a break in the clouds comes as we are wandering around the base of the statue. It’s uplifting to be standing with the statue at our side overlooking the city or Rio de Janeiro…I can only imagine the feeling if it were clear skies during daylight hours, but this will have to do for now.
As our night nears its end we are ravenous from all the activities of the day and make a final excursion to a churrascaria. As soon as we are seated I see the servers circling with various cuts of meat. I fill a small plate with sides from the buffet and wave down every server as they pass…I won’t miss a piece. The steak, lamb, chicken, pork and a few other meats were all mouthwatering (except maybe the chicken heart…I didn’t stop this server the next few times around). We eventually waddle out of the restaurant…I tend to overdo it especially when it’s unlimited.
We get a well-deserved good night’s rest and take a quick trip back to the airport in the morning…Manaus, here we come.