February 7, 2012 (Tuesday): Departure from Washington, DC
Although my spouse and I normally fly from New York’s JFK for non-stop international flights, we chose to fly from Dulles (IAD) in Washington, DC, for our open-jaw itinerary because United/Continental offered us a direct (but not non-stop) outbound flight to Rio de Janeiro and a non-stop return flight from Buenos Aires. We were flying on frequent-flyer award tickets, which necessitated adding two extra days to our originally planned 10-day itinerary in order to find availability (only one of us was Silver Elite at the time of booking, we booked our flights late, and we were traveling at Carnival time). Dulles is about a 3.5-hour drive from our hometown (whereas JFK is a 2.5-hour drive), but we did not mind the extra time because it was a beautiful day (daylight and sunshine), and the route we drove was interesting, involving both highway and rural roads. We built some extra time into our driving plans in case we encountered traffic or some other unforeseen circumstance, but luckily, our drive went smoothly, and we arrived at Dulles much earlier than necessary.
If we arrived early, our plan was to visit the nearby Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center), which we loved! The museum is located 2.5 miles from the airport in Chantilly, Virginia. The hours are 10:00 to 17:30 daily (closing time is extended until 6:30 in the summertime). Admission is free; however, parking is US$15 (the parking fee is waived if you arrive after 16:00). The museum was built near Dulles rather than on the National Mall with the other Smithsonian museums (and the other branch of the Air and Space Museum) because of the tremendous real estate required to house the contents. The collection highlights include the Space Shuttle Enterprise, Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird (the fastest jet in the world), the Boeing Dash 80 (the prototype of the Boeing 707), the Boeing B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay, and the deHavilland Chipmunk aerobatic airplane, to name a few. You would need a few hours to see and read about every flying apparatus included in this museum! We plan to return when we have more time - we had a little more than an hour because we arrived so close to closing time. We drove ourselves to the museum; however, free shuttle bus service is provided by the Virginia Regional Transit (VRTA) between the airport and the museum. Catching a cab TO the museum would be easy, but it would be much more difficult to find a cab to return to the airport FROM the museum. Not only did we not see any luggage storage area/lockers at the museum, but we saw visitors wheeling their bags around the museum space. (This is actually easier than it sounds because the museum is huge and there is lots of room to move around as well as several elevators and ramps.) There are a nice gift shop and cafeteria on-site, in addition to several paying attractions (mostly motion-simulator type rides) and an IMAX theater. When we researched the museum on-line prior to our visit, we saw that the IMAX movies run late into the evening, so at least that section of the museum must be open after 17:30 (18:30 in the summer).
Having only flown through (connected through) Dulles in the past, we were impressed with how expansive the airport property is (surface roads, lodging, gas station, and so on). We parked in the long-term economy lot, and the shuttle service was fast and efficient on both our departure and return (US$10 per day for economy parking) with plenty of shuttle stops located at various points around the parking lots. Security at the main terminal was well organized and professional, and we were quickly through and boarding the train to our departure terminal. We departed from Terminal C, which has surprisingly skimpy amenities. We ate at Tidewater Landing, which was one of the only full-service options in that terminal offering table service and alcoholic beverages. (There was one other wine bar/sit-down restaurant called Vino Volo that seemed like it had more interesting food, but they served wine only and my spouse is a beer drinker.) The southern comfort food and service were fairly good. The end of Terminal C from which we departed did not offer much in the way of shopping, either (a duty-free store, duty-free kiosk, magazine/sundry shop, and one other store), but one is able to smoke in a lounge near the end of the concourse.
Our flight departed IAD on time around 22:15, and 9.5 hours later, we landed in São Paulo (GRU). The equipment was a Boeing 777-200ER Version 2, and we sat in the Economy Plus section with a configuration of 2 - 4 -2. There was in-seat back entertainment, but it was on a continuously running loop, so the viewer cannot start and stop the movies on demand; the times are determined by the aircraft. We did not notice any outlets beneath the seats in Economy Plus, but we did not use our laptop so we cannot say that with any certainty. This flight was not our first flight on United/Continental to South America (we’ve been to Ecuador and Peru), and as on previous flights, it seems like the South American routes use older equipment than on European and Asian routes. We checked bags only on the return flight (there were no baggage fees to South America, so we could have taken 2 bags at 50 pounds each plus a carryon and personal item). We were fed twice - dinner shortly after we departed DC, and a snack of yogurt and a small sandwich (not a full breakfast like in business and first classes) before landing at GRU.
We had read several reviews about our 2-hour ground stop in São Paulo GRU (which did not require a plane change and retained the same flight number), and it seemed to happen differently for everyone. Some passengers wrote that it was simply a ground stop and that they did not have to disembark the aircraft. Other passengers wrote that they had to go through customs and immigration even though they were in transit. And still other passengers wrote that although they had to exit the aircraft, they stayed in a transit lounge until it was time to re-board. We experienced the last scenario - we had to deplane, but we waited in the boarding area (which did not appear to be a transit lounge) until it was time to re-board. We did not have to go through any kind of security, customs, or immigration. We did not check bags, but we assume that had we done so, the luggage would have been automatically checked through to Rio. There was an English-speaking airline representative on the ground in São Paulo who directed connecting passengers on where to go. From the little that we saw of the São Paulo Airport, it was fairly small, with a few counter-service dining and shopping options; there may be more amenities in an area in which we did not explore. We did not see anywhere to smoke in the São Paulo GRU Airport.
February 8, 2012 (Wednesday): Arrival in Rio de Janeiro
Our 1-hour flight from São Paulo (GRU) to Rio de Janeiro (GIG) departed on time around 12:30, and we indeed boarded the same aircraft on which we had arrived. The flight was nearly empty - not more than 20 passengers travelled on that huge Boeing 777-200ER aircraft! There was no in-flight service, although they served us a drink after boarding/prior to departure. It did not seem economically feasible that United/Continental operates an aircraft that is so empty, but there must be some reason for it. We did not see much of the arrivals area of the GIG airport, but there appeared to be a few shops, money exchanges, and food counters.
We arrived at Aeropuerto Internacional Galeao Antonio Carlos Jobim (GIG) around 13:30. Because we carried on our luggage, we did not use baggage claim, but the arrivals area felt calm compared to some places that we’ve traveled (of course, the plane barely had any passengers, so that may have had some effect). We arranged a transfer from GIG to our hotel, the Copacabana Palace, with the driver of our private guide, Rafa. The driver’s name was Elias, and the cost was US$55 for the transfer from GIG airport to the Copacabana Palace (and in reverse, US$40 for the return from Copacabana Palace to GIG). Had we booked directly through the Copacabana Palace using their car service, the cost was US$125 on arrival and US$66 on departure. It took approximately 40 minutes to reach the hotel from the airport.
Copacabana Palace Hotel Review
We stayed for four nights from February 8 to 12, 2012 at the Copacabana Palace (an Orient-Express Hotel), located on Avenida Atlantica, across the street from Copacabana Beach (there are no hotels directly ON the beach in Rio). We booked a Superior City View Room through the American Express Platinum Fine Hotels & Resorts Program. The rate included an upgrade upon availability, a 12:00 early check-in, a 4:00 pm late check-out, buffet breakfast daily for 2 people, and a US$100 spa credit. (We would have preferred a US$100 food and beverage credit, but that was not offered.) We debated between the Copacabana Palace, the JW Marriott, and the Sofitel, which were all similarly priced, but decided on the Copacabana Palace because it is one of the most iconic hotels in South America. The hotel is modeled on the Negresco in Nice and the Carlton in Cannes, so it’s a big, classic property. The hotel has two parts - the original main palace building and an annex called the tower wing. Our room was located in the annex. We were upgraded to an Avenue City View Corner Suite (room 954), which had a large living room with two balconies, a nice-size bedroom, a large bathroom, and a large foyer. One of the balconies overlooked Avenida Nossa Senhora de Copacabana, and the other balcony overlooked the fitness center/spa with a slight view of the Atlantic Ocean (if we stood on our tip-toes and leaned over a bit). When we checked in, the desk agent explained the various rooms from which we could choose, so we knew that we were sacrificing a pool/ocean view for a larger suite, a decision that we would repeat. Neither balcony was outfitted with any patio furniture, which was a real shame! Anytime we went out on the balcony, we carried out chairs from the living room. It seems odd to have such nice outdoor spaces and then not encourage guests to use them. It would probably promote consumption from the mini-bar as well, because guests would want to enjoy a cold refreshment while they sat on the terrace. The living room had a sofa and two chairs, along with a coffee table and two end tables. It also had a desk and chair and two other small chairs (which we used on the balconies). Wi-Fi service was included with the room rate. Coffee service was provided (it looked like a single-cup Keurig-type machine), although we do not remember it being complimentary (we did not use it). Evening turndown occurred late (between 21:00 and 23:00), and as part of the turndown, a bottle of water and a yummy chocolate was provided on each bedside table, and a starched bedside mat was laid on each side of the bed, with a pair of Havaianas flip-flops atop. The air-conditioning worked tremendously well, which is always impressive in an international hotel of a certain age, and especially in such a warm climate. The bathroom featured dual sinks, which helps when two people need to share, and a bathtub separate from the shower. The toiletries were made by Granado in possibly the Castanha do Brasil scent, according to what we see on their website. Shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, and body wash were provided, as were some cotton swabs and cotton balls, but that was the extent of the toiletries. (Granado was once the official pharmacy of the Portuguese royal family.) We had some issues with our toilet - one of the parts inside the tank responsible for the flushing mechanism broke several times, and each time we called maintenance, someone would arrive with a plunger, thinking that the toilet was clogged. It was difficult communicating the real issue to the staff - we are not sure if it was a language barrier or they did not have the correct parts to replace the broken ones. Umbrellas, robes, and slippers (actually black Havaianas flip-flops, which you can take with you when you leave; just ask the housekeeper or reception desk for a specific size if what they provided does not fit) are provided, as is a nice-size electronic safe. The night before our departure, we were unable to open the safe, and it was discovered that the batteries needed to be replaced. But this repair was handled with the utmost professionalism, with two persons - one person of whom seemed managerial - coming to address the issue. No iron or ironing board is available, but of course, the hotel offers pressing services for a fee. The closet area in the bedroom was huge, sort of a walk-in type with plenty of storage. We really enjoyed the spaciousness and comfort of our room!
The location of the hotel is great, with Copacabana Beach across busy Avenida Atlantica, and Sugar Loaf mountain less than a 10-minute drive away. A cross-walk exists near the corner of the hotel, and the traffic lights have those buttons that pedestrians can push to make the light change more frequently. Avenida Atlantica sometimes has two-way traffic, and at other times, the traffic runs only one way, but the direction changes depending on the time of day. (It made us glad that we did not rent a car and drive ourselves!) It does not appear that there’s any parking at the hotel; some on-street parking exists, but you could not leave a car there for any significant amount of time, and certainly not overnight. A doorman is stationed at the hotel entrance to hail taxi cabs for the guests, although we did not use that service.
To reach the fitness center and spa, which are part of the tower annex, you must walk through the Cipriani Bar and Restaurant. If you try to access the fitness center or the spa in the late afternoon or early evening, you feel a bit conspicuous in your workout gear or hotel robe as you pass elegantly attired diners. Even returning to your room after a late afternoon at the beach or pool makes one feel a bit out of place as you walk through Cipriani. Although we do not normally partake of spa services while on vacation (our feeling is that we’re already relaxed, so why not save the pampering for a boring day at home?), I booked a 30-minute jet lag massage to spend our US$100 spa credit from American Express. The cost for the service ended up being about US$85, but I remitted the entire check in addition to leaving a separate tip for the therapist. The spa area is attractive, with a lovely relaxation room on both the main level and the upper level. You can use the area on the main level at any time, whereas it seems that the room on the upper level is reserved for patrons after their services. Outside of the relaxation room on the main floor is the entrance to the men’s and women’s saunas, as well as a small table outfitted with cold water (with real glasses and ice) and mixed nuts. The fitness center is large and well equipped, including towels and bottled water. Changing rooms include lockers, showers, and so on. A beauty salon is also on site at the hotel.
The pool is grand, but not as large as we had expected from other reviews. (Perhaps it IS huge in comparison to the pools of other hotels, most of which are on rooftops). The pool is on the ground level, the same level as the restaurants, the beach, and the lobby. Many lounge chairs surround the pool, and the pool staff does a good job of managing the chairs when they turn over. You can order food and drinks to your loungers, and they set up a little pool bar during the day that serves buckets of Veuve Clicquot champagne and other high-end drinks. I believe the formal pool hours are 8:00 to 20:00, but it seemed that you could swim at any time if you were discrete.
For anyone with mobility issues, this hotel features a number of steps The smallish lobby area is located on the ground level, but it is necessary to climb at least 10 stairs to reach another small lobby area and the elevator bank for the main building of the hotel. To reach the pool, gift shop, and restaurants, you must then walk down two sets of stairs, with each set being 3 or so steps. If your room is in the tower annex, it requires a step up from the pool area and opening a very heavy door to enter the lobby area of Cipriani, then up another 3 or 4 stairs up to access the tower annex elevator bank. It’s not a big deal for most travelers, but if anyone has physical limitations, it would present a problem. We do not think that someone in a wheelchair could even stay in this hotel - one would need to be able to transfer oneself up and down those stairs. If you think you might tote your own bag to your room (even one of those small roll-aboard suitcases), think again! It’s hard to manage more than a handbag or small carry-on bag with all those steps.
The hotel offers beach service, where they provide you with complimentary chairs, umbrellas, towels, cold sealed containers of water, and fresh fruit. The chairs were arranged closer to the sidewalk promenade than to the water, separating hotel guests from the masses of local people. If you wanted to take your Copacabana Palace lounge chair down by the water, the attendants would probably move it for you. Another option is to rent a chair and sit by the water. Many vendors set up on the sand who rent chairs and umbrellas and that also sell drinks and food. It seems that each stand also sets up a portable shower for use by its guests. (The hotel does not have its own shower, which would have been a nice perk.) More formal food and drink vendors are positioned along the paved promenade that runs along Avenida Atlantica from one end to the other. Many stands seem to focus on fresh fruit drinks, particularly drinks including fresh coconut. All stands have some type of seating, whether tables and chairs or something more hip and modern like beanbags. Take your pick and enjoy the view! In the late afternoon and early evening, food carts set up on the corner near the Copacabana Palace, selling churros, empanadas, and other types of local food.
The hotel has two restaurants, the formal Cipriani serving lunch and dinner, and the more casual Pergula Restaurant serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Cipriani has a lovely bar area (and both bar and restaurant patrons are treated to live music played on the grand piano), and a nightclub called the Copa Bar is set up on weekend evenings with its entrance near the beautiful pool. We at in the Pergula Restaurant every day for breakfast (with both indoor and outdoor spaces), and the offerings were well-tended and fairly complete. (We did not notice any pancakes or French toast, though.) The variety of fruit displayed is astounding, many with names that were completely unfamiliar to us. The variety of pastries and breads was also impressive. A chef was available to prepare eggs and omelets on request. We were provided with a breakfast bill each day, even though it was included in our room rate, and we think we were charged about US$50 per person per day - a bit pricey in our opinion, because it was not the nicest or most extensive breakfast buffet that we’ve ever seen (that honor goes to the Peninsula Bangkok). We did not dine at Cipriani, partially because we felt that we did not pack fancy enough clothing. Another reason is that we live near New York City, where there are several branches of Cipriani, so we feel that we can always try one of those properties at a later time. We ate dinner in the Pergula Restaurant on our first night of arrival, hoping for something light, quick, and inexpensive, but we found that our meal was none of those (although it was atmospheric dining pool-side in the moonlight)! I was not at all hungry, so I ordered nothing but a non-alcoholic drink, and my spouse’s dish of penne Bolognese cost over US$50 (for a single-serving size, not a large bowl like you would get in the US from which you would have some leftovers to take home)! No less-expensive options were available; appetizers/starters seemed to be priced just as highly as the pasta, and certain tourist staples like the ubiquitous club sandwich were not offered. Nearby less-costly restaurant options included La Fiducia, Manuel and Joaquim, Maxim’s, and Churrascaria Palace.
The main entrance to the hotel (which opens onto the registration lobby) is the ONLY entrance and exit from the hotel during most of the day. A sealed entrance/exit exists in the annex; however, it is not used any more, probably for security reasons (the door opens onto the street running parallel to Avenida Atlantica, which is called Avenida Nossa Senhora de Copacabana). We also saw the door that leads into the Pergula Restaurant opened in the evening and manned by a doorman ushering in patrons between velvet ropes, but instead of the door admitting people to the restaurant, it provided easy access to the Copa Bar that opens off the pool area on Thursday through Sunday nights. Hotel guests have no cover charge on Thursday or Friday, but do have to pay on Saturday and Sunday nights. (We cannot comment on the amount of the cover charge because we are past the age of drinking and dancing the night away!)
This hotel does not have an ATM machine; however, they can convert foreign money to local currency at the front desk or concierge desk. Front-of-house staff are very professional, attired in regulation business suits, and are knowledgeable about local restaurants and attractions.
In an effort to save some cash, we visited a nearby store every afternoon that sold beer (singles and by the case) as well as cases of water. We bought a case of water and a half-case of beer each day for about R$30 (US$16), which was the price of one fancy drink at the hotel! There’s sort of a “dollar store” called Lojas Americanas on Avenida Nossa Senhora de Copacabana where you can buy snacks, non-alcoholic drinks, suntan lotion, and other sundry items.
We made the right choice for ourselves in staying at the Copacabana Palace - it was the favorite hotel of our vacation, and we would jump at the chance to stay there again - especially in one of the suites!
February 9, 2012 (Thursday): Sightseeing in Rio
We booked Rafael (Rafa) Torres as our private guide for a full-day tour of the Rio sights. Rafa charges US$300 for a full-day tour, which includes a car and driver (Alexandre was our driver). Rafa requires a 30% deposit at the time of booking, which is payable using PayPal. For an evening tour, he charges US $200; for a tour to an area outside of the city such as Petropolis or Buzios, the cost was quoted at US$400 (we did not travel outside Rio, so we cannot vouch for the accuracy of that number). Rafa is a really personable man in his 30s who has an excellent command of the English language. He is very responsive to e-mail and gives great descriptive reviews of his life in Rio and the tours that he offers. He is truly a nice guy, even though he was not the perfect guide for us. As a couple, we are very interested in history and architecture and learning lots of facts and details about the places that we visit, and that was not what he provided. (We take some of the blame because we are not certain that we specifically voiced [or e-mailed] our expectations of him.) He is dependable and friendly and easy to talk to, and would be a terrific guide if you want someone to hang out with at the beach or take you shopping or on a tour of local restaurants, bars, or nightclubs.
Rafa picked us up at the Copacabana Palace at 10:00, greeting us with a kiss on each cheek, as is the Brazilian custom. Our primary goal was to see Sugar Loaf and the Christ the Redeemer statue (on Corcovado Mountain) even though Rafa told us that we could explore those areas on our own (travelling via taxi) and that we did not need to book him as our tour guide to do see those particular sights. (Although we understand his comments, we preferred to pay him and his driver than have the hassle of navigating public transportation or hiring our own taxis.) Rafa did not accompany us to the top of either Sugar Loaf or the Christ Statue, so we did not feel like we learned anything about either attraction because we saw them on our own. Rafa did offer one piece of advice for Sugar Loaf before he pointed us towards the gondola station, which was to go all the way to the top first (which means taking both cable car rides) rather than stopping in the middle (after the first cable car) to explore before traveling to the top (to explore again). We avoided some crowds this way, which was a real time-saver. The cable cars run continuously, although you can wait up to 20 minutes for a car (they wait until the cars reach capacity before departing). It took us about 2 hours to see Sugar Loaf, but we walked at a pretty fast pace and did not spend much time sitting and admiring the view. We can imagine this excursion taking 4 hours when it is extremely crowded or if you feel that you need to see every inch of both landings.
After Sugar Loaf, we traveled to the Christ Statue, traveling through the Tijuca Forest. Rafa told us that we were going to take the shuttle bus to the top rather than taking the incline train because the lines would be shorter. We appreciated the sentiment, but would have rather been given the choice: after all, it was our time to spend as we wished, and the train is more quaint. He also warned us several times prior to arriving in Rio that often the statue is enveloped in fog, in which case, nothing can be seen and that we would be wasting our time to go on such a day. Fortunately, we had a fairly nice day, because it would have been disappointing had we not seen that icon of Rio. It is difficult to take pictures of yourself with the statue, but we saw some inventive ways to do so: if one person lies on the ground and the other person stands over him, with one leg on each side of his waist, the photographer on the ground can take a nice shot upwards of the person’s head in front of the statue. (We saw some tour guides taking photos of their guests, and we wished that our guide had accompanied us to the top so that he could have taken our photo.) It took about 2 hours to see the statue, including travel time by shuttle bus and then elevator. We can imagine this excursion taking twice that long is traveling by train or when it is extremely crowded.
Our next stop was the Selaron Staircase in Santa Teresa, where we met the Chilean artist who laid thousands tiles on a formerly dilapidated set of concrete stairs running near his house. We had expected to stroll around Santa Teresa and perhaps ride on the tram, but we did not have time. After that, we crossed the Bay Bridge to the area of Niteroi, where the Modern Art Museum is located. We did not go inside the museum; we took some photographs around the base, which was designed by Oscar Niemeyer, the same person who architected Brasilia.
Lunch was next on the agenda, so we ate at Restaurante a Mineira on Avenida Quintino Bocaiva in Sao Francisco, Niteroi, which provided an extensive, authentic buffet of hot and cold Brazilian foods that we very much enjoyed. The restaurant was uncrowded in the late afternoon (but the patrons that we saw were locals, not tourists), but the foods were kept tidy and replenished. Lunch for three people cost approximately US$40, including drinks (mostly non-alcoholic) and gratuity.
Finally, we stopped at a lookout point near Niteroi where the views across the bay towards Corcovado, the Christ Statue, and Rio were amazing! The view of the mountainous landscape rising up from the misty water but also reflecting the sun in the sky was surreal-looking and very beautiful. Para-gliders often depart from this location. We were supposed to visit a fishing village on our full-day tour, but Rafa said that we would run into traffic returning to the hotel if we made another stop. We began the day at approximately 10:00 (not our choice, and about 2 hours later than we would normally begin a tour) and were back at the hotel around 18:00. Perhaps had we started earlier in the morning (at our usual 8:00), we would have had time to accomplish everything on our list. Again, to be fair to our guide, we never requested an earlier start time, choosing to respect his expert opinion and also relishing the fact that we could sleep late because we were on holiday.
After returning to our hotel and relaxing a bit, we ate dinner at Maxim’s Bar and Restaurante, which is located close to the Copacabana Palace at Avenida Atlantica. This restaurant has both indoor and outdoor seating, but smoking is not permitted in either part. We shared the fejoida for two people, which was apparently very special because this meal is usually made on a weekend, not a weekday. Fejoida is a typical Brazilian stew-like dish containing meat and beans. The dish is traditionally served with rice, and accompanied by chopped fried collard greens, manioc or cassava flour, peeled and sliced oranges, and pork rinds. The meal is often washed down with Brazilian caipirinhas, which accompanied the dish. Another night, we shared the paella for two people at Maxim’s, which was interesting and plentiful, although not particularly tasty. (We generally try not to repeat restaurants while traveling, but we were tired and it was easier to deal with a known entity than an unknown entity.)
February 10, 2012 (Friday): Aborted Hang-Gliding Attempt and Carnival Practice
We had planned to go hang-gliding on this day, but disappointingly, we never got off the ground! Prior to arriving in Rio, we had e-mailed approximately 8 different companies. (There are probably 20 different companies from which to choose, many of which have similar-looking websites.) Because my spouse is tall and muscular, we needed to find a company that could accommodate his weight for a tandem hang-glide (the maximum weight allowed is 130 kg, which is 286 pounds, and my spouse fell nicely within that parameter by more than 10 kg (20 pounds). So we e-mailed 8 companies that appeared to have the most potential based on their websites, but sadly, we only received responses from 4 of them. Of those 4 companies, one assured us that it would be no problem to hang-glide and offered to let us book a trip via e-mail, although no deposit was required. (Another company sounded great, but wanted us to call them when we arrived in Rio rather than booking anything in advance, and we were not comfortable that they would still have a spot for us if we waited that long.) We arranged to be picked up at 9:15 at the Copacabana Palace at a cost of R$60 (US$32) for the round-trip transfer for the two of us. Our take-off was scheduled for 10:00.
The driver arrived promptly, also chauffeuring two other guests from another hotel who would be paragliding with another company. The drive to São Conrado took about 20 minutes, and the driver was pleasant even though he spoke little English. We did not know at this point if he was our driver, or one of the pilots. Not speaking English was fine if he was the driver, but most disconcerting if he was our pilot. When we arrived at the pilots clubhouse, we were met by a man who immediately told us that only one of us could hang-glide, and that the other person would have to para-glide because of weight and weather conditions that day. This was an immense disappointment to us, because we had both already para-glided in Nepal a few years ago and therefore, we not interested in repeating something that we had already done, even though we enjoyed it the first time. We had come to Rio to hang-glide, and to hang-glide together (each with our own pilot). In our numerous e-mail communications with the owner of the company, he never once mentioned that weight and wind might prevent a problem (obviously, we knew that bad weather could cancel the excursion completely, but this was a different scenario).
We tried to speak quickly amongst ourselves to decide whether we wanted to go through with the flight, each of us doing a different activity. Time seemed pretty critical, though, and we were whisked inside the clubhouse to apply for our student flying license and pay our R$15 (US$8) fee per person to the ABVL (Brazil Free Flight Association). We were not told to bring our passports (or even the passport numbers), which was required for the application. (Instead, we were told to make up a number resembling our birthdate.) Fortunately, we both knew our blood types, although requiring that bit of data does not inspire confidence in what we were about to do! We both started to feel a little skeptical about this activity. From our arrival in São Conrado, we experienced a bit of a language barrier with the man who would be piloting the tandem para-glide, and we also learned that we would not meet the pilot for the tandem hang-glide until we reached the top of the cliff. We debated about spending so much money on something that one of us did not want to do - we were fine with paying for the hang-gliding, but not the para-gliding. The cost was fairly high - R$250 per person (US$136). Photos were an additional R$50 (US$32), plus a video/DVD for R$100 (US$54). So the combination flight + photos + video = R$350 per person (US$200). We had each decided to get our own photos and video thinking, “How often do you hang-glide in Rio?” and that we both wanted as many memories as possible of this activity. But in the end, the reward did not seem to match the risk, and we informed the pilot and driver that we would not be flying that day.
After we decided to “pull the plug” on our adrenaline rush, the driver nicely took us back to the Copacabana Palace. Because the day was gorgeous, we changed into our swimsuits spent the day on the famous Copacabana Beach.
In the evening, we had arranged a half-day tour with Rafa to visit the Sambodromo for Carnival practice. In our e-mail communications, Rafa had suggested visiting two specific samba schools, which were located far from the city, but in our own on-line research, we learned that because we were visiting Rio so close to Carnival time, various samba schools would be practicing at the nearby Sambodromo, allowing us a realistic vision of what actual Carnival feels like. Two schools were performing that Friday evening, supposedly at 20:00 and 22:00. Rafa and his driver picked us up around 20:00, and our drive to the Sambodromo took less than 15 minutes. The stadium seems to be located in a lower-income area, and we did not feel completely safe walking around the streets, even though there were three of us, one of whom was a local. Once we reached the Sambodromo itself, the atmosphere was fine - crowded and festive and safe. Walking from where Rafa’s driver had dropped us off to the Sambodromo felt a bit unsafe. Although 20:00 was the starting time for the first school, they did not begin performing until after 21:00, but they performed for about an hour, marching down the parade route with their dancers, drummers, float markers, and so on. The members did not wear their actual costumes as we had hoped they might (we thought that if it was a true dress rehearsal, they might wear their costumes), but they were all dressed alike in white pants/shorts/skirts topped with a bright green T-shirt personalized for their school (neighborhood), which was named Mocidade. Food and drinks were sold during the practice (all pre-packaged), but there was some fresh food available from vendors outside the stadium in a small city square-type area. Prior to arriving in Rio, we debated whether this activity would be worthwhile, and it absolutely was! If we could not be there for actual Carnival, at least we saw one school parade down the route, singing and dancing their hearts out! (When we first planned our trip, we had tried to flip our itinerary, first going to Buenos Aires and finishing in Rio so that we could be present for Carnival, but hotel occupancy was greater than 99%, and the one or two rooms that we could find were priced at US$2,000 and up per night with a minimum of 5+ nights.)
Our car was stopped at a DUI alcohol checkpoint on the way back from the Sambodromo to the Copacabana Palace. Our driver was made to exit the vehicle and blow into a breathalyzer, which fortunately he passed without any issue. Apparently Brazil has a zero-tolerance policy for alcohol. If any readers are considering renting a car, this may be good information; failing a sobriety test (mainly because you don’ t know the legal limit) is not something that anyone wants to do on vacation. Never having been stopped at such a checkpoint in the US (fingers crossed!), it was a bit nerve-wracking!
February 11, 2012 (Saturday): Investigating Copacabana Beach
We had planned for this to be our one beach/relaxation day, but the weather was overcast. We decided that the beautiful weather on the prior day would satisfy our need for beach time. Instead, we walk the wave-patterned promenade along Avenida Atlantica, first up to the Sofitel at Arpoador Beach, then down to Leme. Historic forts were built at both ends of the beach, one built in the early 1900s and the other in the late 1700s. A small flea market was set up about one block from the Copacabana Palace, featuring Brazilian handicrafts and souvenirs.
We enjoyed lunch at Sindicato do Chopp on Avenida Atlantica in Leme (both indoor and outdoor spaces, with smoking allowed outside), where we shared a carbonara pizza, with the expected cheese, eggs, and pancetta and the unexpected ingredient of green olives (with pits). Later that evening, we ate dinner at the Churrascaria Palace Restaurant & Bar on Rua Rodolfo Dantas, only one block from the Copacabana Palace. This rodizio restaurant serves skewer after skewer of every kind of meat imaginable! A selection of cold salads and accompaniments is laid out on a buffet, and other hot items are delivered to the center of your table such as French fries, onion rings, and bread. Be sure to try one of these restaurants, and be sure to be very hungry when you enter. The restaurant was extremely crowded on a Saturday evening when we arrived at approximately 21:00, and we were given the only open table at that time, which was near the front door. In the US, normally we would refuse such an undesirable table, but it ended up being fine and was a memorable meal.
February 12, 2012 (Sunday): Rio to Iguazu Falls (Brazil Side)
We had arranged a transfer from the Copacabana Palace to the Rio de Janeiro Galeao Airport (GIG) with Rafa’s driver Elias for a cost of US$40. (Comparatively, and fairly comparably, the Copacabana Palace quoted US$66.)
We departed Rio de Janeiro Galeao (GIG) at 13:30 on GOL Airlines flight 1756, arriving in Fog do Iguacu (IGU) at 15:30. We were able to check-in on-line for our flight (actually, the concierge at the Copacabana Palace did so for us while we were at dinner the previous night, handing us our boarding passes in a nice envelope when we returned for the evening), but there were kiosks available for check-in at the airport as well. It was necessary to check our bags, even though we each had only a 21” roll-aboard suitcase. (No fee is assessed for checked bags, though.) Apparently, no one rolls on luggage in South America like we do in the US. Although we departed from the international airport, the facilities were extremely limited: one small snack bar (with tables but no table service; they served some hot and cold food items and both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages) and one magazine/newsstand. You cannot smoke in the airport. Do not arrive too early for a domestic flight from the international airport because there is not much to keep you occupied.
GOL offered in-flight service. First, the attendants passed through the cabin with one cart offering free beverages such as soda and juice. Then they passed through the cabin again with a different cart, this time containing items that were not free - alcoholic beverages, energy drinks, and boxed snacks.
We arrived at the Fog do Iguacu Airport (IGU) at 15:30. Baggage claim was speedy, and we were on our way out of the airport in no time. Our guide for the Iguazu portion of the trip, Miryam Bllanco, met us at the airport, along with her driver, Mario. We arranged our itinerary with Miryam through Rafa, our Rio guide. (Although we knew that we could see the Brazilian side of the falls on our because we were staying at a hotel in the national park, we were not sure how to see the Argentinean side of the falls on our own. And as far as airport transfers, we either needed to use a taxi, to use the hotel service, or to see if our guide could transport us.) Our hotel was located 10 miles from the Foz do Iguaçu International Airport (Brazil), and the cost of our transfer was US$60 with our private guide. If you catch a taxi, be sure to specify the Hotel das Cataratas (Orient-Express) on the Brazil side of the falls, because there is another similarly named hotel called Hotel Cataratas on the Argentinean side. The hotel quoted us the same price for a transfer from the Brazilian airport, however the price for a transfer to/from the Argentina Airport Iguazu (IGR) was R$240 (US$131) each way. Our guide charged us only US$80 for the Argentinean airport transfer. If using hotel transfers, payment can be made at the Iguassu Experiences tour office in the lobby, or you can put the charge on your room bill (but then also add an extra 15% charge). The hotel is located approximately 1 hour from the Argentinean airport, depending on traffic and border-crossing lines. Also remember the 1-hour time difference between Argentina and Brazil when calculating the time to leave for the airport.
Hotel das Cataratas Hotel Review
We stayed for three nights from February 12 to 15, 2012 in a Superior Room at the Hotel das Cataratas (owned by Orient-Express) directly through the Orient-Express website. Although this property is part of American Express’s Fine Hotels & Resorts program (through who we booked our stay at the Copacabana Palace in Rio de Janeiro, the perks offered as part of the program did not outweigh the lower price that we attained by pre-paying/booking 21 days in advance. We did not need the early check-in or late check-out, and breakfast was already included with all room rates at this hotel. (We think the room rate includes breakfast because there is not anywhere else to eat other than the hotel.) The AmEx perk was a one-way airport-hotel transfer, and we figured that the transfer would only apply to the Brazilian airport (not really worth the extra money that we paid in the room rate over the pre-paid rate) but not to the Argentinean airport (which would have been a deal); however, we never actually inquired about it. In retrospect, we should have booked through AmEx; even though the rate was higher, we might have had a chance for a room upgrade, because we ended up receiving exactly the room category that we booked - perfectly acceptable but not exceptional like our room in Rio. This hotel is inside the Brazilian national park adjacent to the falls. It was still necessary to purchase a ticket to the national park in order to gain entrance to the hotel; however, the pass was good for 3 days for a cost of R$40 per person (US$22). The hotel is located a distance from the front gate of the park - several miles at least - but there is a park shuttle that runs during the park’s operating hours (about 9:00 to 17:00), so you can ride on that bus if you want to reach the visitors center, and from there you can catch a local bus to Foz do Iguacu. The town of Foz do Iguacu is located 18 miles from the hotel, which takes about 40 minutes by hotel car, and reportedly costs R$200 round trip (US$100). (The town on the Argentinean side is called Puerto Iguazu.) Because the hotel is located inside the national park, you can hike around whenever you like, even outside of normal operating hours. Take a hike before 9:30 or after 17:00, when the park opens to the public and the large tour groups and buses overtake the serenity.
We booked and received a Superior Room, and pleasantly, our request for a balcony was honored. Similarly to the Rio de Janeiro hotel that we had recently left, the Copacabana Palace, this hotel offered no furniture on the terrace, which was unfortunate. It was a nice-sized balcony with plenty of room for a small table and two chairs, and yet it was completely empty. We pulled chairs from the room onto the balcony when we wanted to sit out there. Our room was located in the forest wing; we remember reading reviews prior to our trip about guests complaining because this wing was located so far from the lobby, but we did not feel that way at all. The walk was pleasant, partially indoors and partially beneath a covered walkway (adjacent to the shops). You are walking a lot in the park anyway, so what’s a little more exercise on the way to the bar or restaurants? Our room was a nice size, with a king-size bed, desk and chair, and table and three chairs. Floors were hardwood, and the ceilings were high, giving the room a more spacious feeling. The bathroom, however, was small and cramped, but certainly not the smallest bathroom we’ve ever seen (that honor goes to the Parker House Hilton in Chicago), although the bathroom fortunately featured dual sinks next to the combination tub/shower unit where we could both get ready simultaneously. Granado toiletries (shampoo, conditioner, lotion, soap) were provided. The color of the soap was a little off-putting, a dark green glycerin. (Granado was once the official pharmacy of the Portuguese royal family.) Robes are provided, and each guest receives a complimentary pair of Havaianas (sort of an aqua color) that you can take home with you. If the correct size is not in your room, either ask housekeeping or reception to change them for you. Evening turndown occurs a little too early, in our opinion, between 18:00 and 20:00, a time when most guests are showering and dressing for dinner. Surprisingly, no bottled water is provided at evening turndown, because they make a big deal of the turndown service, placing chocolates and a weather forecast on the bed, and also arranging starched mats adjacent to each bedside atop which they place a pair of Havaianas flip-flops.
The hotel has an ATM machine on-site and four small shops: a jewelry kiosk in the lobby, and another larger jewelry store and two souvenir shops between the main wing and the forest wing. The fitness center located in the forest wing is very small - only about five pieces of equipment (one treadmill, one elliptical trainer, one bike, and so on), but you’ll be getting your exercise outdoors anyway. The hotel offers cold ice water flavored with citrus in the lobby near the front desk at all times.
We spent about US$550 on food and beverages over our 3-night stay at the Hotel das Cataratas. The guests really are a captive audience because there is nowhere else to eat or drink. We would have spent even more, except that on our day of arrival, we walked to the park snack bar to buy several bottles of water, thinking that they would be less expensive there than in the hotel mini-bar; they were less expensive, although not appreciably so. And we also bought a less-expensive 12-pack of water and a 12-pack of beer one day when we visited the Argentinean side of the falls. Drinking from the mini-bar or ordering room service at the Cataratas was the same price as eating in the restaurants or drinking in the bars. The snack bars inside the national park do not serve beer in cans or bottles, however, so you are limited to making non-alcoholic purchases only. The formal restaurant Porto das Canoas at the far interior of the park, as well as the snack bar adjacent to it, serve both draught beer, and although we saw bottled beer at the formal restaurant Porto das Canoas, we do not know if they would permit you to “carry out”.
The hotel features several dining options. The more formal Restaurante Itaipu is open for dinner only from 19:30 to 23:00, but is closed Sunday and Monday. Unfortunately, those were two of the three nights that we stayed at the Cataratas. We had e-mailed the hotel about operating hours of Itaipu before we arrived so that we could make reservations, but they discouraged us from doing that, stating that we needed to look at the menu first before reserving. No one mentioned that the restaurant was not open daily. Restaurante Itapiu offers indoor and outdoor seating. We did not eat at this formal restaurant despite thinking prior to our trip that we would be dining there every night. We enjoy good food, unique ingredients, and interesting presentations, and generally avoid buffets, so this restaurant seemed to be the place for us. But with the restaurant closed two of the three nights we stayed, even after perusing the menu, we decided to forgo it on the third night as well. Other reviewers have said that the prices were high, but we did not find the prices quoted to be much more than the buffet dinner in the Ipe Grill; the difference was that you would be served a few courses rather than all-that-you-cared-to-eat.
The Ipe Grill serves a buffet breakfast from 6:30 to 10:00 (included in every room rate), and a buffet dinner from 19:30 to 23:00. The Ipe Grill also serves a la carte options for dinner in addition to the buffet, at least on Sunday and Monday nights when the Itaipu Restaurant is closed. Although we ate dinner at the Ipe Grill intending to order from the a la carte menu, the menu options were a smaller sampling of what was offered in the Itaipu Restaurant and at the same cost, yet in less formal surroundings. The dinner buffet was extensive and nicely presented, but the cost was a bit high at R$120 per person (US$65), not including drinks (the price did not even include a glass of water). The Ipe Grill has both indoor and outdoor seating, and reservations are essential if you want to dine outdoors by the pool, which is very lovely under the starry sky. (We made the mistake of not reserving a table for dinner in advance, thinking that because we were visiting in the height of the summer that it would be too hot and/or buggy to eat outside, which was not the case. We also had no idea what time we would be ready to eat dinner, and had we booked from home, we never would have expected to eat dinner as late as we did on this trip. We had no problem eating outdoors at breakfast-time, however.)
Bar Taroba serves drinks and snacks from 17:00 to 23:30 daily. It supposedly features live music from 19:00 to 23:00, although we saw live music only on one night of our stay. Bar Taroba offers indoor and outdoor seating. Do not worry about the section on the menu that states that sandwiches are available only until 18:00; it is possible to order from that section of the menu anytime that the bar is open. In Bar Taroba, we would not recommend the tuna sandwiches; the tuna salad really was not good, nor was the dark-brown bread on which it was served. It came with a “rocket salad”, which was only one piece of romaine lettuce with a bit of dressing. We also do not recommend the dumplings and empanadas, both of which were fried beyond recognition and a few were disappointingly empty of ingredients/fillings. The club sandwich and steak sandwich are better choices. Sandwiches cost about US$25, which is a bit steep, but there is no competition. Cans of beer and soda ran about US$7 each, whether from the mini-bar or in one of the restaurants or the bar.
The pool operates from officially from 8:00 to 20:00 (but you can use it anytime if you are quiet), and attendants provide towels and fresh fruit to the guests (supposedly also cold water and cold towels, but we did not experience those amenities); one review we read said that these items were offered every 30 minutes or so, but we sat by the pool for about 4 hours one afternoon and they only came around once with fruit, and never with water or cold towels, so it may depend on the day, how busy it is, the weather and/or temperature. You can order drinks and food directly to your pool lounge chair, or there is a small bar and a few tables set up if you would prefer a more traditional place to eat. The pool is large and well-maintained, and there are plenty of lounge chairs available. Actually, the number of lounge chairs is not so many, however, it never seemed that anyone was unable to be seated. Guests are staying at the property to be close to the scenery, not necessarily to swim in the pool, so the number of guests relaxing at any one time is not overwhelming. The pool is large and nicely shaped, but the depth is a bit odd. The bottom of the pool was designed in three varying depths, but only the highest level is usable; the lower two levels are too deep for anyone to stand (and we are tall people!).
The spa is open from 2:00 to 22:00 and provides a relaxing place for a massage or other treatment. We did not have any services done at the hotel spa, but we asked for a tour, and the steam rooms (they called them steam “tables”, which made me think of a food buffet!) and relaxation areas were clean and attractive. Prices for a 60-minute massage seemed reasonable for a resort at R$200 (US$110.)
Iguassu Experiences is located off the main lobby of the hotel, and is open primarily during daytime hours. You can book several excursions with them, including the Macuco safari, bird park, Itaipu hydroelectric plant, rafting, canopy tour/zip-line, rappeling, trips to the Argentinean National Park, abseiling, rafting, and rock/tree climbing. Several walking tours are also offered; if you are visiting the hotel during the full moon, there is an evening walking tour to see the lunar rainbow.
February 13 (Monday): Iguazu Falls, Argentina
Because Miryam, our guide, lives in Puerto Iguazu, Argentina, she met us at the border crossing between the two countries. Her driver, Mario, arrived at the Hotel das Cataratas even before our agreed-upon 8:00 departure time and drove us from Brazil to Argentina. Wisely, Mario made sure that we had our passports before leaving the hotel. Mario also works as a guide, and is fluent in Spanish, Portuguese, English, and Italian. We spent about 15 minutes waiting on the Brazilian side of the border crossing, and another 15 minutes waiting at the Argentinean border, which Mario said was really speedy. We were able to wait in the van while he completed our paperwork and had our passports stamped. Other tourists who were in small private transportation waited in their own vehicles in the parking lot aside our vehicle. Conversely, we saw long lines of passengers exit huge tour buses, claim their luggage, and then wait in line at immigration and customs before re-stowing their luggage and re-boarding their buses. (We are not sure why the procedure is different for small and large groups, but we were thankful that we spent some extra money on a private tour rather than a large-group bus tour.) After crossing into Argentina, Miryam joined us and we were off to the Iguazu National Park. Our full-day tour with Miryam cost US$350 and was well worth the money. Miryam is really informative, pleasant, caring, and friendly. She pointed out lots of flora and fauna in the park, in addition to explaining all the different waterfalls. We first boarded the train for the upper circuit that leads to Devil’s Throat. Amazing views, and better to visit that area early in the day when the crowds are smaller. The “boardwalk” from the train to the Devil’s Throat platform is well maintained and even accessible for the handicapped. We then walked the middle circuit, stopped for lunch at a snack bar in the middle of the park (beware of the coatimundi who will try to steal your food; they are extremely aggressive and are not a bit afraid of humans!) before walking the lower circuit. Miryam explained the various falls to us, and talked about the Robert DeNiro film called The Mission that was filmed in the park years ago. We completed our tour of the Argentinean park with the Grand Adventure Tour, which included a speedboat ride, river rapids, and a truck tour through the jungle. We were told that we would get wet, which was an understatement! The thin plastic poncho that I threw on at the last minute did not keep me the least bit dry! My best recommendation is to grin and bear it - you cannot avoid getting completely saturated by the end of the tour. Bring some dry clothes to change into (we wish that we had). Our day was long and full of activity; we think that we are generally faster than most people when touring, but it took us all day to see the Argentinean side of the falls, and we could have used more time to walk more leisurely, take a few more breaks, and so on. (And this was with a guide, who knew her way and how to organize the day to avoid the crowds.)
February 14, 2012 (Tuesday): Iguazu Falls, Brazil
We rose early at the Hotel das Cataratas in order to explore the Brazilian national park before it opened to the public. We made it back to the hotel in time to catch some quick breakfast, arriving about 30 minutes before breakfast hours ended. The food supply was very depleted when we arrived at 9:30; all the hot food was gone, and more than half of the fruit and cold selections, and the staff made no attempt to replenish anything. We realize that no one wants to waste food, but we also feel that guests paid a lot of money for their accommodation (which included breakfast) and if they arrive during the correct hours, should be able to get something complete to eat. Guests should not have to cobble together their breakfast by scraping the dregs from every bowl and serving platter. This hotel does not offer cooked-to-order eggs, which we found odd, because the dining room appears to be set up for this type of display cooking, in the same area where the chef features the meat entrees for the evening barbecue dinners. However, pastries are set up in this area instead.
After breakfast, we returned to our room to freshen up before departing to tour the Brazil side of the falls on our own. When we reached our room, we found a bottle of wine from our previous day’s guide, Miryam, wishing us a Happy Valentine’s Day and telling us that we were a nice couple! We were really touched by the gesture, and had planned to send her an e-mail that night thanking her, but when we toured the Brazilian falls, we ran into Miryam leading a small group tour, and we were able to thank her personally. We sat on the balcony Porto das Canoas and enjoyed some drinks before returning to the Hotel das Cataratas and relaxing by the pool until early evening. Porto das Canoas serves a buffet lunch, which looked appealing, however we partook of drinks only on the outdoor balcony overlooking the water.
February 15, 2012 (Wednesday): Iguazu, Argentina to Buenos Aires
Because our LAN Argentina flight departure time from Iguazu to Buenos Aires was changed by 4 hours (!), Miryam had already arranged another tour for this day with other guests. With our original flight schedule, she had thought that she could meet us at the hotel and deliver us to the airport, but because the flight time changed so drastically, she had to meet her other clients (perfectly understandable)! Instead, Mario took great care of us, making sure that we had all our luggage and passports before departing the Hotel das Cataratas, leading us around the Tres Fronteras area and snapping a few photos of us, driving us through the town of Puerto Iguazu and showing us the location where one could take the ferry from to Paraguay, then dropping us at the bird park for our tour (guided tours only last about 1.5 hours, with first a tractor ride and then a walking tour). Mario dropped us at the airport, but then parked the car and came inside to make sure that everything was correct with our tickets and flight. We were glad to have his assistance, because we were able to catch an earlier flight, and he facilitated the exchange because of his fluency in several languages. We were originally scheduled to depart on LAN Argentina at 11:15 to Buenos Aires Newbury Airport (AEP), but about five days before our flight, we received an e-mail telling us that our flight had been changed to a flight that departed 4 hours later than the original flight. We thought the timing was strange, because there are several other flights between IGR and AEP every day, which would have only made us 1 hour or 2 hours late - not 4 hours late! We could not check in for our flight online the night before, perhaps because of the flight change that occurred several days prior. (We tried to accept the flight change on-line, but experienced difficulty; even when the front desk clerk at the Cataratas tried to help us, she was also unsuccessful.) As with our domestic flight from Rio to Foz do Iguacu, it was necessary to check our bags on our flight from Iguazu to Buenos Aires. We did not have much time before our flight, but the airport, although small, seemed to have numerous stores and food options, all of which are pre-security. Security clearance took a great deal of time, and we barely boarded the plane and fastened our seat belts before the flight took off. This is one of those airports where you cannot clear security until they call your flight, and it seemed like several flights left at the same time and through the same security checkpoint, which made the atmosphere a bit chaotic. There are no services post-security; no bathrooms, restaurants, or shops.
We arrived at Aeroparque Jorge Newbury Airport (AEP), located about a 15-minute drive from the city. Our guide for the next day in Buenos Aires arranged a transfer with Manuel Tienda Leon. Their price for a one-way transfer from the airport to the Puerto Madero barrio (neighborhood) is ARG$76 (about US$18). After claiming baggage (which was a bit of a fiasco because the airport kept swapping the carousel numbers for several arriving flights), we proceeded to the counter of Manual Tienda Leon and paid our transfer fee. Then we exited the secure area, and waited for our driver to arrive. He was very brusque and unfriendly, and proceeded to drive like a madman from the airport to our hotel. He nearly got into an accident backing into another car in the loading area at the airport, and when I tried to protect myself by buckling up and dislodging my seat belt from the car door, he gave me a nasty look. As it turned out, the seat belt was stuck in the foldable back seat, presumably when the previous occupant retrieved his luggage when the seat was folded down to accommodate oversize cargo. There was some confusion as to where the driver was to take us, even though we had pre-booked the car. We were given a slip with some sort of directional information on it, although it contained neither the name of our hotel nor the street on which it was located, so we are not sure how he dropped us there safely. The hotel supposedly charged about US$70 for a one-way transfer, so booking through Manuel Tienda Leon offered a significant savings.
Hilton Buenos Aires Puerto Madero Review
We stayed for four nights from February 15 to 19, 2012 in a Queen Bed Deluxe Room at the Hilton Buenos Aires. We used 2 free-night certificates from a great promotion that Hilton offered in 2011, plus we remitted 34,000 points per night for an additional 2 nights. (The AAA rate on our room was US$218 if we were paying.) Despite being Diamond members, there were no upgraded rooms available for us, although the front desk clerk informed us that there really was not any difference between the regular and executive rooms in size or decor except for the location of the rooms, which were on the top two floors of the hotel nearest the executive lounge. The hotel has a good location in Puerto Madero next to the river, which features a waterfront promenade filled with many different kinds of restaurants, bars, and mini-markets, in addition to the ferry terminal at one end and the casino at the other end.
The hotel has a better-than-average gym, a steam room, sauna, and a two-tiered roof terrace with a small pool. The pool/bar service is very slow and indifferent; no one came to ask if we wanted a drink in the 3 hours that we spent outdoors on the lower deck, and there was lots of trash and plastic cups blowing around in the wind because no one cleaned up. (Oddly, we saw at least three lifeguards/attendants every day when we was there, but it did not seem like they were doing much work.) There are a good number of lounge chairs, several table/chair sets where you could eat a meal, and a few of those modern papasan chairs and canopy beds, although nearly all were full on the afternoon that we spent there. There are no true pool towels - guests are given two smallish bath towels to use instead, which seemed a little cheap to us. We had heard that the hotel sells passes to local residents for the gym and pool, and the pool deck was filled with local Porteños enjoying a sunny Saturday afternoon. It seems that also included with these passes is access to the executive lounge, which meant badly-behaved youngsters running through the lounge, sticking dirty fingers in the food, and cleaning out the small refrigerators of any type of carbonated beverage. They also overtook the billiards table, throwing the pool balls all over, including at the glass enclosure separating the table from the main part of the lounge; that was not merely annoying, it was dangerous! The staff in the lounge were nice, but they seemed resigned to the behavior of these children, probably because it happens often, or possibly because they themselves have been reprimanded for correcting the children.
The hotel is modern, with an open atrium around which nine floors of rooms are arranged. There are several elevators, so the wait was never long. The hotel seems to host many conferences and meetings because of the large, dedicated space for functions. The business center is located in this function annex, but when we tried to use it to print off our boarding passes, it was un-staffed and the computers seemed to require a password which we did not know. There is an ATM right in the lobby near the gift shop, and taxis were almost always lined up outside the hotelm, with a doorman present to hail one for you. The hotel has a coffee/pastry bar, a wine bar/restaurant, and another restaurant that serves buffet meals.
The executive lounge was a nice size, with some table seating, lounge seating, a sofa facing a flat-screen TV, a billiards area, and several computers. There is another semi-outdoor living area separated by retractable glass walls/doors that faces the pool deck, part of which is outdoors (if you smoke), with steps leading down to the pool area (smoking is also permitted around the pool). The lounge opens a bit late on weekends - we tried to go at approximately 8:00 on Sunday morning and it was not yet open (although the tables were clearly set in anticipation of the opening). The lounge provides breakfast (mostly cold items, but also with one or two hot components) and an evening cocktail hour from 18:00 to 20:00, featuring hot and cold snacks and complimentary drinks (wine, beer, champagne, mixed drinks).
Our Queen Bed Deluxe Room was a nice size, with the queen bed, of course, a desk and chair, a table and two chairs (but sadly, no lounge chair/ottoman), and a bar area containing a mini-bar (but not a wet bar because it had no sink). We had trouble working the TV; perhaps better written instructions could be provided. The walk-in closet was large, as was the bathroom, with separate cubicles for the toilet and bidet and the large shower. A separate bathtub and one sink (not a dual vanity) completed the room. Basic toiletries such as shampoo, conditioner, body wash, and lotion were provided. We read some previous guest reviews that said no slippers or bathrobes were supplied, but that was not true in our case, although the items were delivered to us after check-in rather than being immediately available in our room. There were even different men’s and women’s slippers provided for each of us. We were supposed to receive two complimentary bottles of water, but they never arrived, and days later when we called down to the front desk, we were told to take two local waters from the mini-bar (for which, as promised, we were not charged). The air-conditioning worked amazingly well, and although the rooms at this hotel do not feature balconies, they do have windows that open a bit. Our room overlooked a courtyard area and some nearby restaurants; rooms on the opposite side overlooked the street. Nearby restaurants include Bull/Havana, Pizza Madero, Cabaña las Lilas, and Carletto, among many, many others. The hotel is located near the Puenta de la Mujer, a pedestrian suspension bridge whose shape supposedly represents the shape of a woman bending backwards. Wi-Fi is free for Hilton HHonors gold and diamond members.
Overall, we liked this hotel and the area in which it is located. The property was well-maintained, and the staff and service were good; however, it is a modern building and neighborhood, and lacks some of the personality of the older, more charming parts of the city. If we were able to stay again for free using award nights, we would not hesitate to stay here, but if we were paying, we might try a more historic area such as Recoleta at a hotel like the Park Hyatt Palacio Duhau, the Four Seasons, or the Alvear Palace. (Of course, those hotels generally come with a really high price tag!)
February 16, 2012 (Thursday): Buenos Aires Tour
We booked a full-day city tour with private guide Marcelo Mansilla of CiceroneBA. The tour cost US$160 for about 8 hours, and we paid for any transportation, meals, and admission fees. Marcelo was very responsive to our e-mails, and absolutely fluent in English, so we arranged for him to meet us at the Hilton at 10:00 to begin our tour. Marcelo is in his 30s, and is clearly in love with his city! He is an excellent tour guide - one of the best that we’ve ever had in all our years of travel! He is knowledgeable about all parts of his city - history, architecture, politics, arts, culture. We highly recommend him!
We first visited Plaza de Mayo to see Casa Rosada, the pink house that is the official presidential mansion of Buenos Aires, and features the famous Evita balcony. From this plaza, we also saw the Cabildo, the May Monument, and the Metropolitan Cathedral. (Definitely visit inside the Cathedral - we never imagined what we saw inside from how the building looks from the street.) Next, we stopped for a short break and some refreshments at Cafe Tortoni, considered one of the most beautiful coffee houses in the world. (We agree!) We strolled to the obelisk in the Plaza de la Republica. The obelisk is located in the center of the Ninth of July Avenue, one of the widest streets in the world. At night, this area is said to resemble Picadilly Circus in London and Times Square in New York City because of all the LED lighting surrounding it. We then visited a tango parlor called Confiteria Ideal, which is an authentic milonga where "real people" go to dance the tango. (it was too early for the tango, but it gave us an idea of what a non-touristy place looks like). We also walked past the Teatro Colon, the Water Company Palace, the Falkland Islands Monument, and several other well-known buildings. Next, we headed to lunch at Juana M, on Carlos Pellegrini, for a light meal of empanadas and chorizo. We liked this basement-level restaurant for its hip and modern decor and tasty food. The last stop on our tour was the Recoleta Church and Cemetery, where the most famous (but not the most ostentatious) mausoleum holds the remains of Eva Duarte Perón in her family plot.
The only suggestion we have for Marcelo was to let future guests know that he will not be accompanying them back to their hotel after touring the cemetery. We suspected that he lived nearby, so of course it may sense to break from us there. He offered to find us a taxi to take us back to the Hilton, but we preferred to walk a bit, and actually ended up walking all the way back even though it was a good distance. (It probably took almost one hour to reach Puerto Madero from Recoleta.) Our real problem with ending this way was that we had not brought an overabundance of money with which to pay him. Prior to departing from the hotel, we asked if we would be returning there at the end of the day, to which the answer was yes, and of course, WE returned there, however without HIM. We had not wanted to carry US$400+ with us (his fee and tip, plus admission fees and money for lunch) if we did not have to, so when he led us to believe that he would return, we brought only half that amount, planning to spend the cash on lunch and admission fees and then paying him with money from our safe when we returned to the hotel. Fortunately, we had no admission or transportation fees, and had paid for lunch with a credit card, so we had enough cash with us to settle our bill with him. We think it was a misunderstanding of the location specifics, and it did not mar the informative tour that he provided. Again, we highly recommend Marcelo Mansilla of CiceroneBA.
February 17, 2012 (Friday): Horseback Riding Cancelled, La Boca and Soho Palermo Instead
We had planned to visit Estancia Los Dos Hermanos and spend the day horseback riding on an authentic Argentinean ranch, but that did not happen. The owner, Ana Peña, called us at the Hilton the night before to tell us that rain was expected for the following day, and that it had raining on that day, too. She suggested cancelling, which we did. The weather in Buenos Aires was lovely on the day that we were supposed to horseback ride, so we are not sure what it was like 1-hour’s drive from the city. We were supposed to be picked up at 9:15 at the Hilton, for a cost of US$80 per person for the transfer (plus US$95 per person for the horseback riding). So we saved ourselves US$350 total for the excursion and saw more of Buenos Aires instead.
We visited the areas of La Boca and Soho Palermo, which we would have otherwise missed. La Boca was very interesting because of the stadium where Boca Juniors play soccer, and all the colorful houses, including the Caminito, where the tango dancers perform. We spent an hour sitting at a sidewalk cafe in La Boca having some drinks and watching the dancing. We were able to walk to La Boca from the Hilton in Puerto Madero, heading down the riverside promenade to the casino before crossing some (very busy!) streets and winding our way to La Boca. In retrospect, we would NOT advise walking to La Boca from Puerto Madero. The distance was fine, but the streets were busy with traffic. Perhaps the streets were not the safest, either - we saw a woman nearly lose her camera to a young hooligan on a bicycle! However, the way that the people walking and driving in the neighborhood responded to ensure that she was safe was really impressive, leading us to believe that it is not a normal occurrence. We took a cab from La Boca to Palermo Soho; there is a cab stand close to the river where a worker will flag down a driver for you and make sure that you get into the correct type of cab (it seemed like we needed a radio cab). It cost approximately US$15 to travel from La Boca to Palermo Soho, and the trip took about 20 minutes. The distance was too far to walk. We strolled around the streets of Palermo Soho, doing some window shopping and looking at the sidewalk cafes (some of which are actually on rooftops). We had a good lunch at Cluny, a restaurant that our guide from the previous day had recommended to us. The space was airy, hip, and modern, and the food was some of the tastiest and most nicely presented of our entire trip. Our bill totalled about US$80 (including tip) for two entrees (they were the two most expensive entrees on the menu), a shared appetizer, a shared dessert, and two rounds of drinks. We took a cab from the Palermo Soho area back to the Hilton for about US$15.
February 18, 2012 (Saturday): Day Trip to Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay
Prior to leaving the US, we booked round-trip ferry tickets with Buqueubus for a day trip to Colonia de Sacramento in Uruguay. Our ferry departed Buenos Aires in Puerto Madero (about a 10-minute walk from the Hilton) at 8:45, and we arrived 1 hour later in Uruguay. Our return ferry home departed at 15:30, so when we booked the trip, we originally thought that we would have about 5 hours in Colonia, which seemed like enough time. What we had not realized was that we would be asked in check in for the return ferry at 14:00, an hour-and-a-half prior to departure time. We obeyed this recommendation, but that was much more time than was necessary. On the other hand, we arrived at the ferry terminal in Puerto Madero one-and-a-half hours before our departure to Uruguay, and that was not enough time! The ferry terminal was absolutely chaotic, but perhaps part of the reason was that it was a Saturday, it was reasonably early in the morning, it was the beginning of a 4-day weekend for the local people, and several ferries left at nearly the same time. Even though we had paid a little extra money each way ($15 per person per way) for a first-class ticket instead of regular tourist class, meaning that we had a special (shorter) check-in line, we had to wait in the same lines at security and immigration as everyone else, so I’m not sure if the extra money warranted the non-exclusive treatment. (There was one special immigration line, but it seemed to be reserved for frequent travelers, pregnant women, and the handicapped.) It took so long to get through security and immigration that we were not even able to check out the special first-class lounge. The first-class seating on the ferry was a bit nicer than tourist class, with leather chairs arranged in rows of 2. As expected, the rows of 2 near the windows filled up first. In the first-class area, there is a counter-service cafeteria-type line for food and drinks. The main deck with tourist-class seating houses the very popular duty-free shop. On the way TO Uruguay, the first-class cabin was full, and halfway through the trip, the attendants offered complimentary cookies. On the return, the cabin was nearly empty, and they offered complimentary champagne. (Too bad it was not champagne both ways, but some patrons might feel that 9:00 is too early to imbibe!) Two round-trip tickets cost approximately US$275, with an additional US$60 for the upgrade. The earlier that you book your tickets, the better the prices are; we booked about 4 weeks in advance, and some of the lower fares were sold out.
When we booked our ferry tickets, we thought that 5 hours in Colonia would be enough, but that time was reduced to about 3 hours after debarkation on arrival and allowing the recommended 1.5 hours to check in on departure. Three hours was not enough time! When we booked the tickets, we had not truly considered that because it was summer in South America, there would be daylight well past 20:00, and because we did not know about the safety of the Puerto Madero area, we wanted to return to Buenos Aires and the Hilton hotel in the daylight. We could have taken a later ferry, giving us more time in Colonia, and in hindsight, that is what we should have done. Unfortunately, with our mere 3 hours, we started walking the wrong way towards the downtown area of Colonia rather than towards the historic area, making our time even shorter. We had not thought to bring a map with us, and we were unable to find a map at either the Colonia ferry terminal nor at either of the first two tourist information areas where we stopped. We still find it unbelievable that no one has maps to hand out! We had envisioned Colonia being small, and had also envisioned landing from the ferry right in the colonial area that we had come to see, but that was not the case. Colonia, near the ferry terminal, is modern, and a distance from the historic quarter. (We think that years ago, the ferry might have landed in the historic quarter, but since that time, a modern terminal was built.) The distance is short enough to walk, however, and supposedly, there is also a tourist bus that makes a loop between the sites. We never saw the actual bus, but we did see the bus stop signs for it.) Another option is to rent a golf car, bikes, or a motorcycle, although only one or two agencies were located near the ferry terminal, with others being located closer to the historic area, in which case you already walked most of the distance before picking up your rental. According to the map that we looked at when we returned, it seems that there are more historic sights to see such as a bull ring, but those sights did not seem reachable on foot, and certainly not in the limited time that we had.
The colonial area is quaint and attractive, primarily filled with restaurants, many with outdoor seating, but also a few shops and some smallish tourist attractions like the lighthouse. We ate lunch outdoors near the water at a restaurant called El Torreon on the street called General Flores. Service was slow, which would have been fine except that we were already feeling pressured because of our own self-imposed lack of time. The bill was provided in US dollars, Argentinean Pesos, and Uruguayan pesos, and they accepted credit cards. Our food was fine (but not great), but the location of the restaurant was excellent.
February 19, 2012 (Sunday): San Telmo Food Tour
When we planned our trip to Buenos Aires, we had hoped to partake in a tour called Teresita’s Culinary Adventures in Buenos Aires. According to her website, several tours are offered including a one-day tour to a local market and butcher shop followed by wine tasting, food preparation, and lunch. This tour is only offered on Fridays, and we tried to arrange our time in Buenos Aires so that we could take it. But unfortunately, there was either no availability during our time in BA, or the tours were not offered that week, perhaps because of the Carnival holiday. We asked Teresita for a recommendation on a similar culinary tour, and she directed us to the company called Buenos Aires Food Tours. BA Food Tours offers both group and private tours, and because the price for a private tour was the same as a group tour, we arranged for a tour on Sunday. We first verified that the tour was available on Sundays, thinking perhaps certain restaurants might not be open. We were assured that it was not a problem, and we were told that it would be an extra US$10 per person in addition to the usual US$70 fee because of the Sunday date. We were told that we would be taking the San Telmo tour, which we had read about on their website. The tour would include a selection of food and drinks, as well as show us some of the local art and antique shops while learning about the history and architecture of the area. The tour company sent us a PayPal request for a US$50 deposit, which we paid. After the deposit was remitted, the owner Jorge (and our supposed guide) e-mailed us to let us know that he was no longer available that day, but that his sister Amalia would be our guide. We did a quick search on-line for reviews of Amalia and found two: one of which was good, and the other, which was not. But to be fair, the unflattering review commented on the fact that Amalia led them into some shops, and it is clear from the website that is an intended part of the tour, so we felt the onus was on the guests for not having done their research. We had arranged for Amalia to meet us at the Hilton at 12:15, but we had some difficulty finding each other in the lobby. Although the lobby was not particularly crowded, we must not have been the couple that she had envisioned, nor was she what we had envisioned our guide to be, and we wasted 15 minutes walking past each other before we asked her if she was Amalia. (We’ve never had this problem before!) Her husband had driven her to the hotel and was then going to transport us to San Telmo. Amalia informed us that they usually do not pick up guests from their hotels, which made us feel a little uncomfortable. If anyone had mentioned that to us in the booking process, we would have been more than happy to meet her in San Telmo, because it was an easy 15-minute walk from the Hilton. On the car ride over, we wanted to pay the remainder of our bill, but had a bit of difficulty trying to make the conversion from US to pesos, and as a result, we think we may have overpaid. Also on the car ride to San Telmo, we were informed that this would not be a private tour, and that two women would be meeting us there. This information was initially disappointing to us, but the situation ended up being a good thing. The day continued to be off to a rocky start when we arrived at the corner to meet the women, and although one of them was waiting, the other was inside a nearby store doing some shopping! We stopped at three venues on this food tour - the first, where we ate empanadas and other appetizer-type food, the second, where we ate more of entree/main meal samplings while watching tango dancers, and the third, which was a coffeehouse for an after-dinner beverage. In between, Amalia explained about some of the houses that we passed, although it was not in great enough detail for us as fans of history and architecture. Nor was the information provided about the food in enough detail for us food enthusiasts. Although we were initially disappointed not to have a private tour, sharing the table and food with other guests turned out to be a positive thing, because we spent a lot of time waiting for food to be delivered, necessitating chatting amongst ourselves, and with two other people, there was more to talk about. But none of the talk was centered on food or ingredients, even when the dishes were delivered. It was an acceptable tour, but not enough food-focused for us.
After the tour, we walked back to the Hilton, where we had arranged a late check-out because our flight back to the US departed at 22:00. Initially, we asked to keep the room until 19:00, and were told that they could not possibly extend our time past 16:00 and that we should consider purchasing another night stay if we wanted to remain in the room any longer than that. We called again and spoke to someone different who agreed to let us stay until 18:00, which worked adequately. At breakfast, we asked the Executive Lounge Concierge to re-key our room cards so that we would not be locked out at 12:00 (or whatever the regular check-out time was).
We took a regular taxi from the Hilton to the Buenos Aires Ezeiza International Airport (EZE), which took about 45 minutes on a Sunday evening with no traffic. The doorman at the hotel arranged the taxi for us, so even though the taxi driver spoke no English, we were comfortable that he knew where to take us. The driver was pleasant, though, and tried to point out a sight or two along the way, such as Evita Peron’s childhood neighborhood and the soccer stadium. When we arrived at the airport, we were early. We always allow three hours for an international check-in, but we arrived even early than that. Because the check-in counters were not even open yet, we had drinks outside of security in a place called Gianni & Vittorio. When the check-in counters opened, the lines moved very slowly, even though we were in a priority line versus regular economy line. We asked the gate attendant whether smoking was allowed post-security, and she informed us that it was not. She also told us that if were going outside to smoke, not to take too much time, because the lines at security and immigration are incredibly long! Fortunately, we heeded her advice, because she was not mistaken! The lines for security did not take too much time, but immigration certainly did! It seemed odd to be going through such extensive checks for people who were leaving the country. On occasion, we have had to remit an exit tax, but even if those countries, we did not wait in line for close to 2 hours! We chose to go left when given a choice of lines to enter, which was a mistake, because several of those kiosks were under construction, so the same number of people waited as on the right but for twice the number of agents. Be sure to have your exit form filled out when you reach the agent. No one handed us this form at check-in, nor at security, so we were lucky that we noticed a small table with the forms prior to standing in line.
It was fortunate that we did not get through security and immigration more quickly, because there was very little to do after we entered the secure area. There was a duty-free shop, of course, and one restaurant called Air Coffee (with both counter service and sit-down service serving sandwiches and snacks). Perhaps other departure terminals are better outfitted than Terminal A?
For those of you with American Express Priority Pass access, supposedly you can use the Sala VIP de las Americas in Terminal A, but only during the months of October to January. Even though we were visiting outside of those months, and also because we had neglected to bring our Priority Pass credit card with us, we did not try to access the lounge. Next to the Sala VIP lounge is another American Express lounge, but we are not sure what that was for. It was busy, though, with many passengers entering and exiting. We have a Platinum American Express card, but we still did not try to access the AmEx lounge; it seemed that most (but not all) people who tried to enter were granted access, so perhaps we should have tried.
Our United/Continental flight 846 departed on time around 22:00, and arrived in Dulles Washington, DC, about 11 hours later at 6:45. The equipment was a Boeing 767-300, and we sat in the Economy Plus section with a configuration of 2 -3 - 2. There was in-seat back entertainment, but it was on a continuously running loop, which means that you cannot start and stop the movies when you want to; the times are determined by the aircraft. We checked bags on the return (there are no baggage fees to South America, so you can take 2 bags at 50 pounds each). As with the outbound flight, we were fed dinner shortly after take-off and then a snack before landing in DC.
February 20, 2012 (Monday): Back in the US
We arrived on time in Dulles (IAD) Washington, DC at 6:45. We had thought that the US has no transit lounges, and although we did not observe this for ourselves, after disembarking the aircraft, airline personnel were definitely directing those with connecting flights to a completely different area than those passengers whose final destination was DC. We assume that the connecting passengers still had to claim luggage and go through immigration and customs before re-checking their bags and possibly re-screening for security, but perhaps they were directed to a more expedited line to do that. We tried our new Global Entry access, which was awesome! It was the two of us and the crew using about 10 kiosks, and it was very easy to use as well as fast! The time savings was worth the US$100 application fee and the inconvenience of the personal interview. Baggage claim was a breeze - even though we did not wait at all for immigration, our bags were already waiting next to the carousel, having been pulled off by the porters. Our luggage had priority tags on them, but we think that it would have been fast anyway. The airport shuttle came quickly, and we were soon in our car on our way home.
We loved the Rio de Janeiro portion of our trip the best. We liked that we felt like we were in a city, yet the beach was on one side of the hotel and the beautiful mountains on the other side, so it was a unique geography that we found really pleasing. We loved our suite at the Copacabana Palace more than any of the other two hotels where we stayed on this trip. Our second favorite part of the trip was Iguazu Falls; having visited Niagara Falls a few years ago, we thought that we would have something to which we could compare Iguazu, but we were unprepared for the immense size and scope of these falls. We liked the Hotel das Cataratas for its serene, exclusive, and secluded location, especially because we had travelled from a large city and would be travelling to another large city after this brief sojourn in the jungle. Although we expected to like Buenos Aires the most of the three parts of our trip, it was our least favorite of the three places that we visited. It was still a great component, and enjoyable, and we would not have wanted to miss it. We think that because it was the most similar to other places that we’ve visited in the past, that perhaps it did not hold as much unique appeal. The comparison and contrast of the three types of locations (beach, jungle, and city) made it a great trip!
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February 7, 2012 (Tuesday): Departure from Washington, DC