8.24.06 – Mmmmmm…..BRAZIL!
I was recently lucky enough to be invited on a “Fam” trip to Brazil. For those of you not so blessed, a “Fam” trip is an excursion to a tourist
destination, usually for travel professionals and the media, sponsored by an airline, with other expenses picked up by local hotels and restaurants
to “familiarize” them with the area. I know this now, after going on my first “Fam”. In a word, it’s a blast.
Brazil, as far as I am aware, despite being the largest and most advanced country in South America, is still a third world country. With
unemployment rates as high as 40% in some areas, poverty is an overriding force for much of its people. In the big cities, visible numbers of the
population live in sub-standard slums, called favellas. Despite this fact, Brazil is home to the world’s largest remaining rain forest, and with it a vast
amount of natural resources, many of which are yet to be realized. Brazil does not import oil; it is self-sufficient for its energy needs. Brazil is the
world’s biggest user of ethanol for cars. The US would do well to follow their lead.
Everyone has seen the pictures of wild revelry and ornate costumes for Mardi Gras celebrations. Rio is famous for the multi-day parades and
parties, not to mention the bikini filled beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema. But I knew very little of the rest of the country. And what I did know
was not exactly Chamber of Commerce approved. News stories of armed motorcycle gangs raiding tour buses, pick pockets stripping tourists
of cash and passports or prison-led assaults on government facilities in Sao Paulo have trickled into the American media. Rarely is there video
footage, and these stories are limited to a sentence or two, but it’s not the kind of press that makes one want to fly across the world to be in Brazil,
beaches and Mardi Gras notwithstanding.
In fact, as an American who reads multiple newspapers each day, I had very little direct information on which to base an opinion about Brazil.
The New York Times doesn’t even list Sao Paulo in its world weather reports. The last I checked it was the 3rd largest city in the world behind
Mumbai, India and Shanghai, China. Reports vary, and the parameters may cause find it 5th, for instance if you compare surrounding areas.
Nevertheless, Sao Paulo, Brazil is a city of some 15 million, with a metropolitan area of approximately 23 million, yet I knew next to nothing about it.
To put it mildly, I was trepedatious (substitute afraid, nervous, worried, anxious, doubtful, and very excited).
I began my trip at the TAM Airlines check-in counter in Miami, where two beautiful young women in front of me were struggling with 16 full-size
and fully loaded suitcases for transport to Sao Paulo. By comparison, for a change, I was traveling light, with just 1 bag to check. At the gate I met
the first M in this story, MARCIA, a TAM Airlines executive who would accompany us on the trip. Now how fun is that! MARCIA, originally
from Rio, was by far the most photogenic of the group, and she always managed to pull a smart, wrinkle-free outfit out of that suitcase of hers.
The flight from Miami is 7-8 hours, and along the way TAM attendants serve several meals, hawk duty-free goods, and otherwise make for a
pleasant trip. Each seat on the flight I was on had a personal video system with several movie and television choices. I was in Sao Paulo in no time.
After a simple pass through customs we were in a comfortable van to the NH DELLA VOLPE Hotel, a block off Avenida Paulista in the heart
We arrived at our hotel about 11pm, still early for a Friday night. Brazilians, especially those in the big cities, typically go out for dinner around
11pm, getting to the bars about 1am before heading to a nightclub sometime about 3am. I found this out, after walking down the street to LOCA,
a gay nightclub close to our hotel. When I entered about midnight, I was turned around and shown the door. I later learned that it didn’t open until
3am. They take their clubbing serious, okay.
Rather than catch a cab and chase the scene around this big unknown city, I sat at one of many sidewalk cafes and had a local beer to acclimate
The DELLA VOLPE is a wonderful hotel, with extra large rooms, each with hard wood floors and jacuzzi tubs. Hotels in Brazil, at least each
of those in which I stayed, had 2 interesting distinctions from other hotels. First, the room key acts as a master electricity switch. Unless in its slot
by the door, none of the lights, (nor any of the appliances), work. The second interesting distinction is the price of the room includes a delightful
So we started our second day in Brazil with a hearty helping of mango, pineapple, papaya, kiwi, passion fruit, melon and strawberries along w
ith sliced meats, scrambled eggs, granola, yogurt, a vast choice of baked goods and strong coffee. Our host at the DELLA VOLPE was a
charming woman from Lisbon, MILAI, Director of Sales for the NH Hotel chain in Brazil. Over the sumptuous breakfast she filled us in on t
he hotel and the neighborhood, pointed us in the direction of some quick shopping, and promised to set up an intinerary for our return to the
hotel the following weekend. She was lovely, and the second M in our Mmmmmm…Brazil experience.
Our schedule had us flying out of Sao Paulo that afternoon for a 2-day stay in Florianopolis. Located Southeast of Sao Paulo on the coast of the
Atlantic Ocean, Florianopolis, or Floripa as it is known locally, is about an hour by plane. It is the capital of the state of Santa Catarina and was
founded in 1542 by the Spaniards. The Portuguese soon overtook it, but Floripa has a strong influence of Germans and Italians, and is a favorite
of Argentines looking for a relaxing beach resort town with fantastic seafood restaurants. Florianopolis is also home to tennis star GUSTAVO
KUERTON, otherwise known as GUGA, who can regularly be seen on the beach or in the stores going about his daily life.
There are more than 100 beaches around Floripa, which is an island connected to the mainland of Brazil by the longest suspension bridge in Brazil.
MAJESTIC PALACE HOTEL, right in the center of the long line of hotels, and we just happened to arrive as the sun was setting across the bay.
The view from my room was stunning.
Our hosts in Floripa were a lovely couple, MARTA(the third M!) and LESLEY, who run BRAZIL ECOJOURNEYS, a travel company
specializing in the many eco-tours that South Brazil has to offer, including rafting, diving, snorkeling, wind surfing, whale watching, cave and grotto
exploration and of course trips to the Atlantic rain forrest or the Igaucao Falls, a massive water works nearly twice the size of Niagra Falls.
MARTA and LESLEY showed us to Praia Mole, a fantastic beach on the Eastern coast of the island, with rock formations much like those in the
Seychelle Islands. A short hike from Mole is Praia Galheta, where nude sunbathing is common and the trails are full of surfer boys in between sets
. The waves here have a gentle break on either side of the crest allowing for some fantastic body surfing. It was very much like Little Beach at
Makena on Maui.
From the beach we went on to a small town, Riberio, where they farm the sea for oysters. It resembled Puerta Vallarta, with cobblestone streets,
quaint seafood restaurants and local artisans selling their goods in stands along the coast.
We finished a near perfect day with a trip to the posh resort, PONTA dos GANCHOS. It is the most exclusive beach resort in Brazil with a
mere 20 suites, all with sweeping ocean views and the most elegant, if not decadent amenities. Rafael Candido and his fine staff treated us to a
4-course meal that was only bested by the spectacular, private, beachside setting.
Monday, after another diet-busting breakfast buffet at the MAJESTIC PALACE , which included among other delights the most delicious and
sweet star fruit I have ever tasted, we were off to the airport for a trip to Rio de Janeiro where we would catch a transport to the resort town
of Buzios. We sadly bid farewell to MARTA and LESLEY who showered us with warmth and kindness during our stay in Santa Catarina.
The flight was into Aeroporto Santos Dumont, named after the Brazillian who allegedly accomplished flight even before the Wright Brothers.
Being American, I won’t address this controversy, but I can say the airport is a breathtaking entrance into the city of Rio. Located in the heart of
this magnificent city, it offers unparalleled views of Sugar Loaf, the Corcovado, Copacabana Beach, Ipanema Beach and the lovely city center on
the bay of Guanabara. Rio de Janeiro is a city nestled amongst the rain forrest, and the view flying in was unbelievable.
We boarded a comfortable bus for a 2-hour trip through the lake region of the countryside to our destination of Buzios, Once a quiet fishing village,
Buzios has been transformed, with the help of celebrity attention as far back as the 60’s when Brigette Bardot frequented the area, into a rich
enclave of boutique resorts and luxurious shopping. We stayed at CASAS BRANCAS, a Mediterranean style villa carved into a hillside
overlooking a majestic bay dotted with lush green islands.
Buzios is actually a peninsula that resembles a giant filet of tuna that has been visited by a school of hungry sharks who each have taken a chunk
out of the shape. The result is a land mass jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean, lined with 23 sandy beaches all protected by the curvature of the
surrounding terrain. Unique it is, and tropical. The water is turquoise and the sand varies from white to pink to red, from the rick red clay that
forms makes up the ground around Buzios. That’s right, pink and red sand beaches!
CASAS BRANCAS, or White House, was like a dream. Each of the rooms has a 180 degree view of the bay, the beach and the cobblestone
streets of a very charming downtown district. I had the same view from my room, my balcony, my shower and my toilet. Talk about paradise!
There are more than 400 pousadas in and around Buzios, with varying amenities and rates. We were wined and dined by many of them and their
links and information can be found at the end of this article. Some worth notable mention were PEROLA BUZIOS with a decadent pool, lined
with 12 platform beds; HOTELLE RELAIS LA BORIE with an ideal setting on the sand at Geriba Beach; THE BRAVA HOTEL, a grand and
dramatic space up the hill from Praia Brava, a wild surf spot and cruisy gay beach; POUSADA PEDRA DA LAGUNA with a delicious buffet
lunch and a setting a short walk from Praia Juao Fernandes, a gorgeous beach tucked away in a protected cove; GLENZHAUS with a large and
inviting pool area; and OUR HOUSE, a quaint pousada with a perfect space for afternoon barbeques and evening cocktail parties. Whatever your
taste and budget, there is a pousada for you in Buzios.
The town very much reminded me of Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii, only bigger and better. There were more shops with higher quality items,
not just tourist trinkets. And at more than one outdoor square live music drew crowds of people to listen and tap in appreciation. The setting was
magical. As were the restaurants. We were treated to fine meals at BRIGITAS and CIGALON. If in Buzios, both are worth a try.
Wednesday afternoon we were back in our luxury transport off to Rio de Janeiro. Along the way I was quickly disavowed of my belief that
LA drivers were aggressive. At a gore point on our way into the city, Brazilian drivers made the daily struggle of merging traffic in Los Angeles
look like child’s play. Where 3 lanes merged into 2, it was a near deadly game of leap frog as drivers one-upped each other to squeeze through
first. I was flabbergasted.
We arrived at our hotel in Rio, the IPANEMA PLAZA HOTEL to a kings welcome. Capirinhas and a room key were instantly in our hands, and
we were finally doing the scene in Rio. My room had a view of both Ipanema Beach and the Corcovado, the Christ the Redeemer’s arms
enveloping the entire city.
Our first stop in Rio was at a stunningly beautiful spot, outdoors on the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, a body of water ringed by skyscrapers
whose lights reflected in the water as the sun set behind Sugar Loaf, also in the horizon on this lagoon. By the way, Sugar Loaf, made famous in
Moonraker, is bathed in whimsical green light at night, making it a very memorable landmark throughout the city even at night.
The spot, PALAPHITA KITCH is a cluster of sofas spread out under palm trees draped in billowing fabric, where Brazilians can enjoy the sunset,
gaze at the many fit runners parading by in skimpy workout clothes(most run in just their swimsuits, the size of which, or lack thereof, is of course
legendary), and party in a Bohemian setting the likes of which I am unfamiliar with in the States. It was awesome. Buckets of ice cold beer, trays
of more capirinhas, and ceramic dishes with a type of queso fundido-Brazilian cheese doused with concacao and set ablaze made for quite the
cocktail party. If in Rio you must try this place!
It is there we met MARIANA(the 4th M in Mmmmmm…Brazil), who along with her partner CHRISTIANO, publish RIO FOR PARTIERS,
a cool guide to the many must see and do things in Rio. PALAPHITA is definitely one such thing! MARIANA is another. She is the girl from
Ipanema, only she is from Rio; kind of a cross between Cher in her younger days, with the perkiness and fun of Gidget. Beauty and wit and
“go for it” fun made MARIANA the perfect guide for the swinging style of Rio.
From there we were whisked away to ZERO ZERO, a gay bar on Sundays, but on this night it was the setting for an exclusive art and fashion
party, where we had VIP entrance and a specially prepared dinner. All the really cool locals were there, including artists, models, young
college ¥uppies, and a mix of everything else.
The next day we took a beach tour South along the coast from Ipanema through Praia de Sao Conrado, Praia Dos Amores, Praia Da Barra
Da Tijuca, praia Dos Bandeirantes, Praia Do Pontal, Praia Da Macumba, Praia Do Arrico, finally settling at Praia Grumari. It was a wild beach
with colorful butterflies inhabiting the green cliffside from which we hiked down to the shore. A look back up to the road revealed a lush tropical
jungle that cascaded down to the sand, where local surfers having done their stint in the waters, gazed out at the waves and played guitar.
If it wasn’t so real, it could only exist on a hipster movie set in some warehouse on a backlot in Hollywood.
We were treated to an outstanding lunch at FELLINI’S, where there is always a buffet with nearly everything in it, including a tasty filet mignon. Dinner was at a restaurant called ZA ZA. Outside it looked like it could be in the heart of the French Quarter, New Orleans, with ornate wrought iron detailing, and cozy cafe tables with candles. Upstairs, ZA ZA was a Moroccan tent, with cushions surrounding a huge table which later was piled high with delectable appetizers of shrimp and meat and cheese, and a delicious entree of “boyfriend” fish, to be followed by an assortment of homemade miniature desserts. Ooh la la ZA ZA!
The evening was completed by a trip to LE BOY/LA GIRL, Ipanema’s showcase gay and lesbian clubs. The two adjacent bars attract a huge crowd, and sometime around 3am the door joining the segregated clubs is opened and the mix of men and women fully inhabit the large, multi-leveled, basement dance floor. It’s about this time that the buffed dancers begin to feel the effects of the capirinhas and they lose what little clothing they were once wearing.
On my way home from LE BOY my taxicab was stopped by a police roadblock where two officers with machine guns asked me to exit the car and empty my pockets. They were looking for drugs, and proceeded to search my body in ways I had only heard about. “Yo soy innocente!”, a phrase I picked up on the flight over(don’t ask), did little good, until they found my room key. That seemed to chang their tone and they actually welcomed me to Rio, sending me on my way. We’re definitely not in Kansas anymore, and whatever you do, do not carry drugs on your person, whether in a cab, a tour bus, a private vehicle, or even walking down the street. Along our trip there were frequent police roadblocks, and this kind of thing could happen anywhere, anytime. I laughed myself to sleep at the experience, but it could have been much worse. How we Americans take our freedoms for granted.
The next day we did the tourist sights in Rio with a train trip up the Corcovado for the stunning views of Rio. Our misfortune had us there enshrouded in fog and clouds, but the trip was worth it nonetheless, making the visit more of a dry run on our own private “stairway to heaven” rather than a run of the mill view stop. From there we did the city center with its historic Municipal Theater and “cinemaland”, and of course a stop at the Samba Stadium through which Mardi Gras has been paraded for the last 20 years. Before then it was a vast street party, but the stadium holds more than 60,000, and keeps the pandemonium contained in a finite region. For 3 riahs, about $1.25, you can actually try on an authentic Mardi Gras costume for your own, very special photo shoot in the stadium. It is a must for any tourist.
We next were hosted for a tasty lunch in the “Beverly Hills” section of Rio at a restaurant called VIA SETE, owned by Ricardo Stern. For less than $20 you can get a nice piece of filet mignon, a salad and a side dish, of either potato or rice. It was fantastic. Then off to Sugar Loaf where you ride two separate gondolas to arrive atop a giant granite rock for excellent views of the Corcovado, the city center and Copacabana Beach. You could spend hours exploring and gazing out at the magnificent sights of Rio. I’m told the lucky ones can even spot a golden lion tamarin, a rare and endangered species of monkey indigenous to the Atlantic rain forrest. We were not so lucky, but the excursion was worth it just the same.
That evening we started out with a champagne reception host by the PESTANA HOTEL in Copacabana, on its glorious roof by Paulo their international accounts manager. We then stopped at a micro-brewery, DEVASSA, with excellent beer and tapas style food. We gorged ourselves on sausages, cheese and deep fried smelts, all washed down with homemade ale in light, medium and dark varieities. Try the red, it was great. Then it was off to see Lapa, the old city center, by night. We started at a traditional Samba club-3 stories in an historic structure that could have been smack dab in the middle of Ybor City in Tampa. The place was cluttered with authentic antiques and loads of Samba-ing Brazilians. Two live bands in opposite corners of the structure kept the beat hopping.
We later took a walking tour under the old aqueduct to a gay bar called CASANOVAS. The sights along the way were astounding. There must have been tens of thousands of locals from all segments of society engaged in various street parties, up and down the connecting streets. It was like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, only this was a regular Friday night in Lapa. “What must Mardi Gras in this place be like?” I muttered to myself. It was at once dazzlying and threatening. It was no doubt dangerous, particularly for us tourists as our hosts arranged for armed guards to accompany us. But it was an electrifying experience, like none other I have had. These folks really know how to have a good time!
Somehow our bus managed to snake through the hoards of people filling the streets and spirit us away safely. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience
I ended my stay in Rio Saturday morning with some body surfing at Ipanema Beach. Our hotel was a few steps away from the very center of the action, with guys playing soccer in the sand, volleyball with their feet-this is an awesome game with some amazingly skilled performers-and surfers enjoying the powerful surf. Ipanema means “bad waters” for the notoriously dangerous surf. It is also a most beautiful beach bounded on one side by two lush green, and rounded mountains juxtaposed against each other in a quirky way-Two Brothers. It abuts on the North side to Copacabana Beach, a larger and more touristy beach of equal renown. The water at both spots, actually throughout Brazil was cool, but quite comfortable, that in the middle of winter.
Copacabana is where the Rolling Stones recently played their free concert on the sand to some 1 million spectators. While we were there they were setting up the stage again for another concert in the very same spot on the beach.
We flew from Rio back to Sao Paulo for some shopping with MALAI in a district that could have been Melrose in Los Angeles. She was waiting for us and after we checked in we were off with he to discover the special charms of Sao Paulo.
That evening the FASANO HOTEL, and a lovely woman by the name of MARIA, the general manager at this posh enclave, hosted the group for a scrumptious Italian dinner, and the best capirinhas of the trip. Only the best at the FASANO!
The FASANO is an elegant place, made to feel warm and inviting. You enter the hotel into a living room bedecked with comfortable leather lounge chairs and twin, wood-burning fireplaces. The front desk is neatly tucked away at the back of the hotel. MARIA gave us a tour of the fine dining room, buzzing with the rich and famous of Sao Paulo and the world, the bar with a live band, the kitchen churning out the incredible fare, the spa and gymnasium, as well as the rooftop indoor pool. The place is class and elegance at its best, as was MARIA. She was another gracious, and gorgeous Brazilian host, and the 5th M!
We saw one of the suites, a huge, exquisitely appointed space with 500-thread count Egyptian cotton sheets, a Bose stereo system, a mini-bar that featured large sized Johnny Walker red, black, green and blue labels, heated towel racks in the bathroom and a panoramic view of the cities skyscrapers, towers lighted ala New York City. This must surely be the life, Italian style in Sao Paulo.
The night was complete when we bused out to THE WEEK, South America’s premiere nightclub. It boasts 10,000 revelers each week, and it is the Studio 54 of Brazil, experiencing its heyday now. The place is non-descript from the outside-just a high walled black structure adorned with Portuguese graffiti. Inside it is an amalgam of 3 giant rooms, one a video room with a dance floor up against a video wall with colorful, changing geographic patterns, another a relaxing lounge with couches and a less driving sound, and a third “go-go” room with a vast stage from where the DJ spins the vibe that gets the masses moving. There are a dozen boxes strewn throughout the room that display bold partygoers willing to strut their stuff, later to be replaced by muscular dancers who pick up the pace. This room has a series of doors that are opened onto an outdoor patio with a pool and wood decking to complete the ambience. THE WEEK is crowded nearly every night and really gets going after 3am.
On Sunday most of the businesses along Avenida Paulista are shuttered, but the street is crammed with traffic that New Yorkers would be impressed by. Meanwhile the sidewalks are lined with vendors selling vast amounts of jewelry, sun glasses, local art, t-shorts, blankets, and anything else a weary traveller who hadn’t had a minute to shop really appreciated.
MARCIA, our TAM representative, completed the trip with a visit to a traditional churrascaria. If you’ve never been, it’s like a food orgy, with heavy emphasis on grilled meats. In Brazil it’s no different, just much better. The meat at CHURRASCARIA NOVILHO de PRATA was delectable, and it came fast and often. We ended the trip stuffed to our gills, and happy as clams.
My time in Brazil was fantastic. It was so unlike my pre-conceptions, and so much like so many of the places I have been, and better. It is a country with much to offer, from relaxed tropical beach settings, to fast important city life. It is a huge country, more like a continent with a wide variety of ethnically diverse people. There is European influence from Germany, Switzerland and Italy. Sao Paulo has the largest number of Japanese outside of Japan. The North and the Amazon have a strong Indian influence. Its size is astounding, with a larger land mass than the United States if you exclude Alaska. The distance from Recife on the Eastern coast to the Western border with Peru is farther than from London to Moscow. It is far to vast to get to know in a week. But it was plenty of time to realize I want to come back for more.
Many thanks to MARCIA, MALAI, MARTA, MARIANA, MARIA and MARCO’S boyfriend DAN LITTAUER, proprietor of G BRAZIL and a wonderful host who set this trip up, hooked us up with these fine M’s and so tirelessly guided us through. Thanks all for a wonderful adventure to an exotic, friendly, sophisticated and beautiful country. It was metropolitan, melodic, magical, mesmerizing, magnificent, moving and most enjoyable. Mmmmmm…BRAZIL!
Thanks also to BRAZIL FIESTA who partnered with G BRAZIL and TAM to make this trip happen. RAYVN and TATIANA, I couldn’t figure out how to make you M’s, but obrigado just the same.