Brazil! Where do I even start. This was sort of a last-minute switch – I had planned to go to Cartagena over Thanksgiving instead, but I saw $650 fares to Rio on Google Flights and, well, that was that. I found a kickass deal on Rocketmiles to earn an extra 16,000 United miles on five nights in Rio, and then there was also this view:
We spent five nights in Rio and two in Foz do Iguaçu / Puerto Iguazú, the Iguaçu Falls region in Brazil and Argentina, respectively. Rio is phenomenal, and we could’ve easily doubled our time there. Note that high season with optimal beach temperatures doesn’t start until mid-December; if you’re going in the off season, bring a few warmer layers for the evenings.
We stayed at the Marina Palace Leblon in Rio, with its chief advantages being that it was in Leblon, across the street from the beach, and available on Rocketmiles. It was also among the cheaper beachfront options I saw, which illustrates Rio’s only drawback – it’s pricey. This was a solid 3* no-frills hotel with an outstanding free breakfast, and we got a bit of a ocean view:
* Proper beach food is a very important part of the process: pair a cup of matte (a sweet tea sometimes mixed with lemonade) with biscoito globo (a sweet or savory baked puff thing) from a beach vendor (R$ 7 for the set; look for the guys carrying a canister on each shoulder), or have a misto-quente (grilled ham and cheese toast, R$ 14) and wash it down with a freshly hacked coconut (usually R$ 5-7).
* Tides are rough, particularly when it’s windy. Copacabana has calmer waters, but is way busier than Ipanema and Leblon. The waves seem smoother at the far end of Ipanema, close to Arpoador. Leblon was virtually unswimmable, with the water being way too dangerous, but it was by far the least crowded and most beautiful beach.
* We really loved staying in Leblon – just the most wonderful little neighborhood, with everything close by, and probably the city’s safest as well. Lest Ryan Lochte insist otherwise, Rio is actually quite calm provided you’re in the “right” parts and don’t go off exploring too wildly. Avoid overt displays of wealth, especially at the beach or after dark. (Sidenote: this Songify is everything.)
* I have unlimited worldwide data roaming (❤ T-Mobile), so we got around using Uber, which was incredibly convenient and much cheaper than cabs.
Christ the Redeemer & Sugarloaf
Both of these are well worth the trip, but pick a clear (or very lightly cloudy) day. Both can be done in a single day – head to Corcovado / Christ early in the day, spend the afternoon in Copacabana, and head up to Sugarloaf about an hour and a half before sunset.
The Corcovado train that takes you up to Christ the Redeemer sells timed passes, so give yourself enough time to get there. If you use their app to buy the passes, you’ll get preferential boarding. Sugarloaf also offers timed passes online, but my credit card didn’t work on their website; we ended up getting tickets onsite without an issue.
Brazilian food is basically all amazing. We fell in love with a place called Jobi in Leblon – they’re open late and have incredible food and drinks. In fact, we were meeting up with a friend of mine who’s a Rio native one evening, and he suggested Jobi without any prompting from us, so it’s definitely local-approved. The caipirinhas are fantastic, as are the picanha, the escondidinho, the morela, and the papaya cream. It’s not a budget pick – for a picanha to share (plenty of food for 2) and 4 caipirinhas, the bill comes to just around US$ 70, but it was all so good that we came back twice more.
The Garota de Ipanema bar/restaurant, where The Girl from Ipanema was written, is worth a visit: the food is good, and you can buy some interesting souvenirs.
Other than that, we just sort of ate wherever, and it was all very tasty. We had lots of beach vendor food, from fried cheese to “Arabian” meat pies, and some regular cafe food – the restaurant up by Christ the Redeemer serves excellent Brazilian beer and savory beef scallops, and the pão de queijo (cheese bread) is just really good everywhere.
We visited the brand new Rio aquarium, which is still really new, so they don’t have a lot going on. However, there is a huge tank with sting rays, so I was good. You should buy timed passes online here as well.
Afterwards, we walked through the port area, which used to be some kind of disaster zone but has now been massively cleaned up. There’s a really wonderful arts scene in the neighborhood and lots of awesome murals:
Finally, we ended up at the Museu do Amanhã, profiled by The Guardian here. This was a very last-minute stop, I just Googled it and it looked cool, so in we went. We only had 2 hours here, but could’ve easily spent 2 more – it really is one of the most interesting museums I’ve ever been to. It’s all about “experiences” and “ideas” rather than things, it’s very interactive (play all the games!), and it’s a gorgeous piece of architecture. Note that you’ll need to buy timed passes online, and if you try to pay by credit card, it will require that you enter Brazilian national ID numbers no matter which settings you adjust; use Paypal to check out instead.
Foz do Iguaçu / Puerto Iguazú
For the last 2.5 days, we flew to Foz do Iguaçu for the eponymous waterfalls. This was 10000000% worth it, because the experience really is like nothing else. Forget everything you thought you knew about waterfalls and come here.
On the Brazilian side, we stayed at San Martin Resort, which was a great choice, as it’s walking distance to the entrance to the falls and shockingly budget-friendly. On the Argentine side, we stayed at the Sheraton inside the park, which offers absolutely stunning views:
It’s at least three times as expensive as its next closest rival, but its prime location lets you stay in the park as late as possible and beat the crowds early in the morning. On the morning of our second day, before checkout, we had the falls entirely to ourselves. The Argentine side is definitely better, though the Brazilian side is also gorgeous. On the Argentine side, take a boat to San Martin island and/or around the falls, but for heaven’s sake, wear a swimsuit and some kind of fast-drying layers, because I have never been as drenched in my entire life.
Whichever side you’re on, watch out for these adorable but ferocious little beasts, the famed coati:
They will follow the scent of food and may stage occasional raids on picnic tables in the parks, so be careful – they bite. They are also absolutely the cutest things on the entire planet.
To cross the border, we hired a hotel-affiliated taxi for $40 each way. This can probably be negotiated downwards.
Finally, the Parque das Aves across the street from the falls on the Brazilian side is a wonderful stop. Lots and lots and lots of beautiful birds arranged in an actual park, with interactive exhibits. Like this guy:
Everything is delicious, beautiful, and sensible. The entire country seems to be one giant successful experiment in societal UX design, which made my Rio native friend chuckle, but which to me is totally true (or maybe I’ve just spent too much time in DC). Everything works. The airport experience is fantastic. TAM, one of Brazil’s national carriers, was expedient, friendly, and on time. Our bags were offloaded before we were. All the food is great, you can buy 70 different kinds of cachaça at grocery stores, the beachfront is developed sensibly, the trails at Iguaçu/Iguazú follow a convenient pattern, everything just makes sense. I was very sad to learn of the plane crash today that took the lives of many Brazilians, including an amazing football team; it really is a country that grabs you by your heart and never lets go, and its people deserve the best.