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Trip Report Bruce and Marija go to Brazil

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Brazil was never on my "places to see before I die" list, although once, during a very cold Chicago winter, I did toy with the idea of fleeing to Rio's beaches. ( I quickly dismissed the destination as being too dangerous and ended up on a dude ranch in Arizona. ) When Bruce received an invitation to give a paper in August in Rio, instead of embracing the trip, I delayed making plans, confident that the economic meltdown or the swine flu would cause cancellation of the conference. At the beginning of July I finally conceded that the conference was going to occur and Bruce could either go alone to Rio for a week to admire the gorgeous women in dental floss bikinis while I stared at my computer screen at home or we could both set off on an adventure.

We spent seven nights in Rio at the Windsor Excelsior Copacabana, 1 unplanned night in Manaus at the Lord Manaus hotel, 3 nights at Anavilhanas Lodge on the Rio Negro, 1 night at the airport Marriott in Sao Paolo, 5 nights at Embiara Lodge in the South Pantanal and a final night in Rio at the Hotel Ipanema Plaza. We also spent an ungodly amount of time in both Sao Paolo airports making connections and doing penance for cancelled and missed flights.

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    We used frequent flier miles to fly business class from Chicago to Rio on United, going by way of Dulles and Sao Paolo. United flies non-stop Chicago to Sao Paolo but doesn't seem to allocate business FF seats on that flight since it's the newly configured flat bed 767. The flight from Dulles is in "old" business class on the yet-to-be upgraded 777s. I was amazed to get FF tickets 5 weeks before departure. The tickets were free but the flight was not without problems. More about that later. I should have booked an open jaw ticket into Rio and out of Sao Paolo but I grabbed the tickets before I had a plan in place.

    Usually we make our own arrangements for accommodations and flights but I had read that in Brazil you can get better rates from travel agents than the hotel websites. For hotels in Rio that seemed to be the case. Although the conference claimed "special" rates for designated hotels, I got substantially cheaper rates from, a New York City-based Brazilian travel agency ($160 per night compared to $220 for the same room). BACC even has real people who promptly answered calls, and even called you back when there was a question.

    I unsuccessfully contacted several agencies for suggestions for places to go after Rio. Most ignored the e-mails. After considerable surfing I settled on Anahvilhanas Lodge in the Amazon and Barranco Alto in the South Pantanal. Alas, Barranco Alto was booked for our dates. Someone suggested that I try to go through an agency that may have already reserved space there. That's how I came upon Brazil Nature Tours,, an outfit based in Campo Grande. They could not book Barranco Alto but suggested Embiara Lodge.

    Brazil Nature Tours answers e-mails promptly, is well organized, and I was delighted to find out that they could book both lodges and all domestic air for us. I could not beat their price by booking the pieces online myself. Having someone we could easily contact in Brazil when we ran into problems, which we did (more later) was truly priceless. In the Pantanal problems were fixed even before we knew they existed! BNT compared a TAM pass versus individual tickets and found that the individual tickets were cheaper. (This year TAM instituted a new rule that connecting flights require a separate coupon for each flight, which means that going from Rio to Manaus would require two coupons, one from Rio to Sao Paolo and one from Sao Paolo to Manaus.) Brazil Nature Tours accepts credit cards for lodging but requires a wire transfer for airline tickets. I had them book everything, including a hotel for our last night in Rio, sparing myself the agony of fighting Brazilian airline websites.

    We were well vaccinated from trips to Africa and India but we were missing yellow fever vaccine since it hadn't been required and does carry a small risk of severe complications. Although Brazil doesn't require the shot if coming from the USA, yellow fever is an issue in Brazil and we decided to follow CDC recommendations and get the vaccine which is good for 10 years. Our lodge in the Amazon was on the acidic Rio Negro which cramps mosquito's lifestyle and there's no malaria in the Pantanal so we didn't take Malarone.

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    Welcome back, Lynn. I'm looking forward to reading about your trip to Africa. I also want to thank you for letting me look smart for a brief second in the Pantanal when I correctly identified your bird!

    Brazil Nature Tours seems to go by several names. Their primary clients are tour operators but they also book individual travel. Our agent even met us at the airport in Campo Grande to explain a change in plans.

    Oops! Sorry for the mispelling of Sao Paulo. I must be suffering from caipirinha withdrawal...

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    Flight to Rio and our first visit to Sao Paulo

    At O'Hare I tried to get us on the nonstop from Chicago to Sao Paulo but was unsuccessful. I also tried to shed some more miles and upgrade us to first class from Dulles to Sao Paulo but was told to pursue that matter in IAD. (I had waitlisted us for both the Chicago flight and first class but neither came through before departure. ) For an unknown reason we did fly in the first class cabin of a newly reconfigured 767 from ORD to IAD. It was the finest flight of our trip, albeit quite short. The only disadvantage to the new configuration in first class is that the pods are so far apart you can't talk to your travel partner.

    When I asked about the upgrade to first class at IAD the gate agent had no problem giving us first class seats. The flight to Sao Paulo was comfortable and uneventful, even in the old seats. I remember saying to Bruce, as we got off the plane in Sao Paulo at 8 AM, that maybe United wasn't such a terrible airline after all. (We have many grievances such as the time they woke us up at midnight to tell us they had cancelled our noon flight and we had to take the 6AM flight if we were going to get our connecting flight to South Africa...)

    We settled into the Sao Paulo lounge to pass the two hours until the connecting flight to Rio at 10:00 AM. At the boarding gate we were told that the flight would be delayed half an hour. Half an hour later the message was that the plane would depart from another gate so we all trudged over there. At 11:30 the announcement was that at noon "the mechanics would make an announcement." United was back to its old tricks.

    At noon the woman in the lounge announced that the flight had been cancelled and we would have to clear immigration in Sao Paulo, pick up our bags and clear customs, drag our bags onto a bus which would take us on an hour ride to the domestic airport where we would be put on a flight to Rio. Our request for tickets or boarding passes for the next flight was denied. We joined the long immigration line, filling out forms about our health as we waited. Swine Flu precautions were very noticeable. A United representative came down and instructed all United passengers to go back upstairs. So we did. As soon as everyone assembled upstairs we were told to go back downstairs since there had been a "slight misunderstanding." After immigration, the next step was to get the bags and ourselves onto a bus. We just followed the crowd since no one from United was available to tell us anything. We all hoped we were on the correct busses.

    An hour in heavy traffic and we were at Congonhas, the domestic airport. (Saturday traffic was supposedly much lighter than during the week.) After retrieving our luggage outside we didn't know what to do. Some people wandered in one direction, others in the opposite. We finally decided to follow some Brazilian passengers who could at least ask for information and directions. Once we reached the terminal complete bedlam broke out. Neither TAM nor GOL knew anything about the 100 or so stranded passengers and there wasn't anyone from United present. I asked GOL how much a one way ticket to Rio would cost and was told $500, so that dampened my enthusiasm for just catching a plane and getting out of there. I knew we would never collect from United. After an hour or so a single United representative arrived and announced that we were to take a TAM flight to Rio at 4:00, landing in the domestic airport, not the international one as the original plane was scheduled to do. We stuck close to the irate Brazilian passengers who exchanged many heated words with the United rep. and we were all finally checked in. When the Brazilians demanded lunch vouchers they were told it was not possible. This was but another vivid example of United's total disregard for passengers. (When we flew to China and the flight was delayed five hours we at least received an apologetic letter and discount coupons from United. This time we didn't even get that!)

    The TAM flight, which took about an hour once it was airborne, landed at Santos Dumont Airport shortly before 6, almost 7 hours later than we were scheduled to arrive. Fortunately we hadn't booked a pick up, so we just took a yellow cab (not radio) to our hotel. I had been warned by someone who stood in the visa line at the Brazilian embassy with me in Chicago never to take a cab since we might be robbed and beaten but decided that since we withstood United's punches we could fend off anyone! The fare was 50R since it was Saturday night and the traffic was very heavy. Under usual circumstances the fare should be about 30R.

    Hotels in Rio

    We stayed for a week in Copacabana at the Windsor Excelsior Copacabana ($160), about a half block south of the famous Copacabana Palace. On our return we stayed for one night at the Hotel Ipanema Plaza ($220/night). The Windsor Excelsior, across the street from Copacabana beach, had spotlessly clean rooms, powerful shower, great staff, wonderful breakfast buffet and a nice roof top bar with good caipirinhas. (Fee for internet access.) The only problem was that it was in Copacabana which is rather seedy once you move away from the beach. All of the conference hotels were located in Copacabana, presumably since you could take the Metro directly to the Conference Center. The Metro doesn't go to Ipanema. All of the participants in Bruce's section of the conference decided to stay in the same hotel since "Rio is so dangerous" so that's how we ended up there. I wouldn't feel comfortable strolling the area around the hotel at night. Restaurant choices are limited and we always took a cab to a more distant restaurant.

    The Hotel Ipanema Plaza is in a great location about a block from Ipanema beach. It's surrounded by numerous restaurants, bars and shops in an upscale neighborhood. We arrived close to 10PM and had no problems walking around and finding a place to eat. Our late arrival probably explains why we were upgraded to a large junior suite. An elaborate buffet breakfast is included in the rate. The usual checkout time is noon but we were allowed to stay until 2PM without any additional charge. Ipanema or Leblon is where you want to stay, not Copacabana!

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    What a mess getting there. So that was you who was awakened in the night and told to get to the airport at 6 am if you wanted to get to South Africa. I remember that incident, but had forgotten who it happened to.

    You certainly deserved the "nice roof top bar with good caipirinhas" after all that.

    So you identified the White Rumped Monjita!?

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    Dinner at Shirley's

    Once we checked in our first mission was to find the roof top bar, not too difficult of a task for thirsty travelers. The bar shares space with a small swimming pool and stunning views of Copacabana beach and Cristo Redentor. It was here that we ordered our first caipirinhas. After a small sip I declared that I didn't like the taste and fortunately wouldn't be tempted by them for the rest of the trip, saving myself many calories. By the time I was savoring the last drops I knew my initial prediction was wrong. Surely a daily caipirinha or two would prevent early onset of Alzheimer's, improve cholesterol and help the impoverished lime producers of Brazil. This was a cause we could enthusiastically embrace!

    Food is an important part of travel for us, so I usually arrive with a list of recommended restaurants. I had a more difficult time than usual finding reviews of Rio restaurants, not because of a shortage of great places to eat, but because English speaking and review-writing tourists seem to be less numerous. There are hundreds of recommendations on the Europe forum of fodors for restaurants in Paris or Rome but very few for Rio. The same is true for chowhound.

    Getting food would involve going out into the streets of Rio. That was something I was concerned about. Our wedding rings and watches were sequestered at home, replaced by tasteful single- digit- valued Walgreens timepieces. I decided it was too dangerous to carry a purse and stuck into my pocket some cash which we had extricated from a cooperative ATM in Sao Paulo's domestic airport. (The international airport at Sao Paulo doesn't have ATM machines for passengers in transit though there is a cash exchange booth with lousy rates. The only positive outcome from our trip to the domestic airport was that we could pull cash from willing ATM machines.)

    We chose to have our first dinner at Shirley's, Rua Gustavo Sampaio, 610, Leme,
    because it had good reviews and was located in what I though was walking distance from the hotel. The concierge discouraged walking (good advice for the area) and we took what turned out to be the unmetered hotel car, though we asked for a cab. Both the hotel car and the returned cab charged about 12R for the ride.

    Shirley's is a cash only neighborhood restaurant featuring Spanish seafood fishes. In the dark, the area surrounding it did not appear welcoming and I was somewhat apprehensive. However, nothing stands in the way of Bruce and his dinner so we entered the small dining room, past a refrigerated display case that contained the day's fresh fish. The waiters make repeated trips to the case to pluck pieces of fish for patrons who are given the opportunity to inspect the fish prior to its preparation.

    As soon as we sat down a waiter plopped two photogenic dishes of seafood on our table. I was alarmed by this, since there was no mention of cost and I've learned to be wary of unordered items appearing on my table, especially when traveling. In Brazil it appears that the couvert, or appetizer which is priced by the person, is often brought to your table unordered. It's up to you to indicate that you don't want it. I declined the items on our table until I had a chance to look at the menu and see that they were very reasonably priced at which point I ordered a single portion of delicious sardines in tomato sauce. I soon got over my fear of items appearing unordered on a table and just enjoyed them, assuming that they were fairly priced since most locals were eating them. (Unlike in Europe we never encountered any "tourist" restaurants. As far as we could tell we were the only tourists in our selected restaurants, with the exception of Antiquarius where people were speaking a variety of languages.)

    For dinner I ordered zarzuela, a fish stew, while Bruce had sea bass Brazilian style. The menu was in Portuguese, Spanish and English so we didn't have problems ordering. (I did bring a copy of Eat Smart in Brazil by Joan Peterson which has a detailed food dictionary. As is usually the case when you cleverly cart something around, I never needed it except when I didn't bring it...) Both dishes were excellent. We declined dessert since we knew that we were still facing three weeks of temptation.

    During dinner I noticed that all of the women carried purses, casually slung over the chairs. Perhaps Rio wasn't as dangerous as I thought? Cabs were plentiful and the restaurant hailed one for us for the return. Again, without incident, we reached the hotel, located our room and fell dead asleep. A full day of touring Rio with our guide Marcone awaited us in the morning.

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    An all day tour of Rio with Marcone and dinner at Porcao

    Although I was going to have an entire week for sightseeing in Rio, the conference would take up most of Bruce's time. This time limitation, and my exaggerated fear that it was too dangerous to wander Rio alone, led me to search the internet for a tour guide for a day. I found many positive comments about Rafa,, and hired him and his car for a day ($150). At the last minute he claimed a booking mistake and substituted another licensed guide with car and driver. I didn't really mind since all we were interested in was someone who knew Rio and spoke passable English to show us the sights. Before leaving I e-mailed Rafa and asked him if it was safe to take a good camera with us on the tour and he assured us that it would not be a problem. (Bruce had his good camera equipment since we were heading out to the Amazon and Pantanal after Rio.) Everywhere we went there were tourists with all kinds of cameras and lots of police around the tourist spots. Gradually the fear of crime in Rio subsided and we treated Rio as any other big city-- be cautious but not fear-stricken. We never encountered or saw any problems.

    Marcone, a licensed tour guide/nursing student, didn't disappoint. He met us at 9:00 at the hotel with an air-conditioned car and driver and we started out for Corcovado and the famous statue of Christ, stopping at some scenic points in the Tijuca Forest along the way. (We could have taken the scenic train up by ourselves, but since we had a car we just included it in the day's activities.) You can no longer drive all the way to the top by car, you have to transfer to frequently running buses. Even though it was a beautiful Sunday morning we had no problem getting to the 700-ton Jesus who looms over the city and is probably the most recognizable symbol of Rio. Or maybe the beaches win...

    Our next stop was one I had never heard of--Marapendi, a big area of wetlands with several islands and lots of caiman and wonderful birds. We met up with Rafa and his two tourists (who live 25 miles from us in the Chicago suburbs!) and we all set out in a private motorboat for a tour of the waterway. What a delightful change from the bustle of Rio. If you're not going to the Amazon or Pantanal this is a great way to see some wildlife.

    We stopped to admire a secluded beach and several viewpoints from which we could see the Ipanema beach stretched out in front of us, littered with cariocas enjoying their Sunday. Marcone asked if we were hungry and we replied that we were ready to eat whenever and whatever he selected. Our next destination was Niteroi, which is reached by longest free-standing bridge in South America. Since Niteroi is across the bay from Rio, you can see the mountains and skyline of the city. One of Niteroi's claims to fame is the Modern Art Museum, designed by Oscar Niemeyer, the architect of the Brazilian capital Brasilia. It's supposed to be a flower emerging from the water but it looked like a mushroom or spaceship to us. The collection inside the museum is not of particular interest, so we didn't bother going inside. As we circled the island we saw small fishing villages with men repairing their nets. Again Marcone asked about food and again we asked him to pick a spot and stop. Despite passing a series of waterfront restaurants, we continued on to a military fort at the edge of the bay overlooking Sugar Loaf, a beautiful spot for photos (and parasailing)

    By now it was close to 5 PM so we decided to head back to the hotel, still somewhat mystified by why we never stopped for lunch. After parting with Marcone, an excellent guide, we made our way to the rooftop bar where we concluded that this was the day we should go to Porcao, the acclaimed all-you-can-eat churrascaria, since, if we’re lucky, we’ll never be this hungry again in Rio. Getting reservations wasn’t a problem since the cariocas were celebrating father’s day and lunch was the big meal of the day.

    We were hungry no more when we returned from Porcao in Flamenco, a short cab ride from the hotel. (We went to the Flamenco location because it’s supposed to have the nicest views. That’s probably true when the sun is up. The Ipanema location was about the same distance from our hotel.) The salad bar was immense, including sushi selections; the wandering giant skewers of meat, accompanied by docile bow-tied waiters, circled endlessly like generous vultures. We quickly learned to flip our cards to red (stop) after each new meat was deposited on our plate. That way we didn’t end up with a heaping plate of rapidly cooling meat. As soon as we were able to continue, we flipped it to green (more). Chicago boasts several churrascarias, so we knew to graze lightly from the salad bar and to ignore the accompanying side dishes, good as they may be. If you’re going to a conference in Rio look for a discount coupon for Porcao in your registration materials. Bruce received his after we had already eaten there, so we couldn’t use the 25% discount. Even devoted eaters can‘t go to a churrascaria twice in a week!

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    How odd you missed lunch. As you mentioned earlier, more calories to devote to other eating ventures.

    Marapendi--a great discovery! Thanks. I hear people from Chicago like to go there.

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    Confeitaria Columbo and Siri Mole

    During breakfast at the hotel's sumptuous buffet , we amused ourselves by looking out the large windows overlooking the beach and watching the locals out for their morning runs and walks. Our mission for today was to find the conference center so Bruce could pick up his registration material. We had some difficulty locating the nearest Metro station since we relied on the hotel's directions and not our maps. (It's not the first time that we've been misled by the assuming that the first turn instruction corresponds to the turn taken going out the hotel door...) Once our supposed 5 minute walk to the Metro approached 20 minutes even we could tell that something wasn't quite right. Using a strange mix of Spanish/Italian to ask for directions, since even in Rio not many people speak English, we finally arrived at a (different) Metro station from the one closest to the hotel.

    I had read that the Metro was perfectly safe and our experiences with it were excellent, though we never used it late at night. Bruce bought a pre-loaded 10 ride card to which he later added rides. He rode the Metro daily, I also rode it alone and never felt uneasy. The stations are clean, well marked, and there are lots of people around. It's unfortunate that the Metro doesn't cover the entire city.

    After a quick pickup of registration materials the next task was to explore the center of the city (the conference center is not in the center). There didn't appear to be any must-see places so we headed to the cathedral, a gigantic concrete beehive structure. We've seen many churches but this was really different and worth a visit. One of the reasons for going to the cathedral was that it was close to the widely acclaimed Confeitaria Columbo (Rua Goncalves Dias 32, Centro), our designated lunch stop. For unknown reasons Bruce no longer trusts me when I say that something is right around the corner and he insisted that we take a taxi to the confeitaria. Well, it was almost around the corner but it took the taxi almost a half hour to fight its way through lunch hour traffic in the narrow streets of the old city. We got out of the cab early since it was gridlocked. Fortunately cabs are inexpensive in Rio.

    The Confeitaria, which on its placemats claims to be the most visited spot in Rio, is housed in a gorgeous belle-epoque structure with huge Belgian mirrors, French stained glass and Portuguese tiles. (Note that there is a branch of the Confeitaria Columbo in the Fort in Copacabana but it is nothing like the original and has a very limited selection of pastries.) As you enter, on the left, there are cases which imprison numerous types of beautiful pastries which you immediately want to liberate, on the right are the savory treats. There is a rather cryptic English menu with items like "assortment of special savories" but no English is spoken and you just have to imagine what that may include. We decided to have some savories before embracing the sweets which are the real stars. I'm still not sure what was in that savory assortment but it was mediocre at best. The juice on the other hand was some delicious mix of mint, pineapple and ingredients we couldn't identify. Bruce entrusted pastry selection to me so I just walked the waiter to the pastry counter and pointed, judging the pastries purely by their appearance, knowing that I couldn't possibly get more information about them. The pastries were great and we left happy but somewhat confused. On the check, in English, was stamped "Tip not Included." If it had said "Service Not Included," I wouldn't have been mystified. The use of "Tip" made me wonder if this was the same scam as perpetrated on tourists in Europe, drawing a distinction between service and tip in an attempt to get unsuspecting tourists to leave more money. I also didn't like that it was a stamp and not part of the standard bill given to everyone. In all of the restaurants we ate at, if service was not included the waiter would calculate 10% and (with our approval) add it to the amount charged on the credit card. When service was included, as it usually was, the waiter actually pointed to the 10 percent on the bill and gave us the option of not paying it.

    The Carioca Metro stop is just a couple of blocks from the confeitaria (turn left when you exit) and there's a Citibank nearby. We made use of both and took the Metro to the correct stop, only a five minute walk from the hotel. To celebrate our cleverness, we stopped at the Copacabana Palace en route to our hotel, admired its beautiful facade, and relaxed with caipirinhas at the cafe by the swimming pool.

    Dinner was at Siri Mole, Rua Francisco Otaviano 50, Copacabana. where we were eager to try the signature siri mole (soft shell crab) moqueca, a Bahian stew that includes coconut milk and dende oil. Unfortunately it wasn't available that day. The shrimp and fish moqueca was a wonderful substitute and enough for two, unlike the caipirinhas. (When we returned to Siri Mole on our last day in Rio, in another attempt to eat soft shell crab moqueca, we learned that soft shell crabs were actually out of season). Despite the dark storm clouds that engulfed Rio by evening, we'd had a most enjoyable day.

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    A long walk and dinner at Casa da Feijoada

    The storm that covered Rio last night hadn't quite dissipated by morning, though it was no longer raining steadily. Bruce and his companions set off for the meetings, leaving three spouses in search of amusement. We donned our rain jackets and set out for a long walk along the beach, from the northern tip of Copacabana all the way to Leblon. (At that point in the trip I would have been concerned about setting off alone but since there were three of us we figured we were safe. On other mornings I walked alone, alert but unconcerned.) After a rain-dodging stop under a hotel awning, our first stop was Copacabana Fort and Museum at the southern end of Copacabana. For 4R each we toured the fortifications, admired cannons and guns, and had coffee and pastries at the small branch of the Confeitaria Columba. Since the day was cool and cloudy, it was perfect for walking long distances and we continued onwards, despite the setback we experienced when we had to retrace our steps from what we thought was a clever shortcut out of the Fort and onto the beach. (When you go to the Fort the only way out is the way you came in!)

    To continue on to Ipanema we had to pass through a brief stretch of restaurants and shops and then it was beach all the way, though we had to dodge many work crews who were busily returning wayward sand from the street back onto the beach, a consequence of last night's storm. Ipanema's beach seemed narrower than Copacabana's, though the area was certainly more upscale. It was lunch time but my companions didn't care and we continued marching all the way to the Marina All Suites Hotel in Leblon. I had read that this hotel had a great bar with a view which I hoped would yield a bite to sustain us for the long walk back. A large crowd of teenagers was amassed in front of the hotel hoping to catch a glimpse of some glitterati besides us. A trip to the top yielded a pool and a small bar that was closed. I'm not sure if this was the acclaimed Bar d 'Hotel but the decision was to move on, even if it meant teasing the crowd with our exit.

    We headed inward from the beach in search of a snack and encountered a wonderful juice bar where I had one of their specialties a fig, honey and coconut concotion and some empadas, a Brazilian take on empanadas. An astounding number of juice bars dot Rio, offering fresh drinks with an amazing selection of vitamins that can be added at extra cost. About 6 hours into our walk, as we approached the southern end of Copacabana, we decided to spring the 10R for a taxi back since we had already done this stretch in the morning. This left us just enough time to get ready for the return of the scholarly conference attendees.

    Having the hotel make our reservations for Casa da Feijoada, (Rua Prudente de Morais 10, Ipanema) turned out to be a great idea since the bottom of the reservation form indicates that its presentation entitles the bearer to a complimentary caipirinha. There was no need to joust for the single drink since all six of us got own freebie passion fruit caipirinha. Get your hotel to make the reservation and bring the form! (Both of our cab drivers had problems locating the restaurant but they asked for directions from passersby and quickly recovered.)

    Feijoada, the acclaimed national dish of Brazil, traditionally seved on clean-out-the-refrigerator Saturday, is a stew that can include a wide variety of meats: sausage, beef, pork, lamb, tongues, feet, ears, and the list goes on. At Casa de Feijoada you select how many or few of these your stomach will embrace. That's really the only choice you have to make since everything else is part of the standard meal: sausage, bean soup, rice, kale, farofa, yucca, pork rinds and of course the digestion- aiding orange slices. Dessert was three tasty but unidentified scoops of sweet things. The set price turned out to be around $35 per person. Since this is the only feijoada I've ever had I don't know how it stacks up, but I do know that we all enjoyed the meal.

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    Day trip to Petropolis

    The plan for today was a day trip to Petrópolis, the Imperial City, named in honor of Emperor Pedro II. Petrópolis was actually Brazil's capital from 1894-1903. I was lured by guidebooks' descriptions of its great natural beauty and interesting attractions, and convinced the other two spouses that it merited a visit.

    The concierge was horrified that we didn't want to take a tour or a taxi and were asking for instructions to the bus station, the Rodoviaria Novo Rio, which was a 20R taxi ride away. Comfortable Unica line buses leave every 30 minutes for the hour long trip to Petrópolis, which winds through forests, hills, and of course, Rio suburbs. When you buy your ticket, 15R each way, you're shown a screen on which you point to the seats you want. The center of the old city of Petropolis is a 20R taxi ride away, or you can take a well marked bus. The staff at the tourist center in the bus station spoke excellent English and gave us detailed information about what to do and see.

    The main attraction is the former Summer Palace of the second Brazilian Emperor, which is now a museum of Imperial history memorabilia. There are also some old churches, a crystal palace and some lesser attractions. Although all of these were mildly interesting, and the town was quaint, I didn't think this was "worth" a day trip from Rio and I was apologetic about having organized the expedition. Maybe our historian spouses would have found it more interesting.

    When we exited the bus station for our return to Copacabana we were quickly herded into a waiting taxi by what I assumed was the taxi-line manager but who was really the shill for the radio- taxis. Seems we were in a radio-taxi which has a set fee and is a lot more expensive than a regular cab, charging us 35R to make the same trip, in lighter traffic, that cost us 20R in the morning. I certainly didn't see the need to pay more and made sure to avoid radio taxis for the rest of the trip. We took a lot of taxis and never had a problem. (At some places, like Sugar Loaf, the radio taxis are very aggressive and we had to almost fight our way into a regular taxi.)

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    Are you sure the teenagers weren't gathered there in anticipation of your visit? Now I know the national dish of Brazil is Feijoada and that it may include such parts as ears. I might pass.

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    I love it that we are getting installments of this well written and engaging report at regular intervals; between this one and Lynn's wonderful trip report on the Africa forum, there's always something to look forward to these days..
    But I hope we get to the Pantanal soon!

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    Thanks for reading! The Amazon and Pantanal are coming up next. This is it for Rio.

    Dinner at Antiquarius

    Since Bruce's birthday was approaching we decided to use it as an excuse to go to Antiquarius, considered by many to be the best Portuguese restaurant in Rio. The decor was interesting with antique filled rooms, definitely a very traditional feel, and a cosmopolitan clientele based on the languages beings spoken. This was the only restaurant we went to where people were "dressed up."

    The couvert, at what I think was 22R per person, was excellent and included foie gras, pates, fried "things", and garlic bread. Items were replenished as they were finished, though I couldn't tell whether we were charged for them. For my main course I had their (not cheap) specialty of bacalao with scrambled eggs, ham, potato and who knows what else. The cod was excellent and we should have ordered this dish to share since there was enough for two. Bruce, however, ordered shrimp Antiquarius, a curried shrimp dish which was not nearly as good as the cod. With a bottle of wine the bill was steep (note service is not included in the prices on the menu) but it was an enjoyable birthday celebration.

    Santa Teresa and Aprazivel

    Bruce's meeting ended at lunch today so we decided to take a ride on the open air Santa Teresa tram and have lunch at Aprazivel ( From the Carioca Metro station the tram stop was about a 15 minute walk, if you head in the correct direction. I had read many warnings about crime on the Santa Teresa tram but there was nothing frightening about it on a Thursday afternoon when it was crowded with tourists, and had lots of local kids hanging off the sides on the way down. We bought 60 cent tickets for the ride up from the station attendant, you pay the same amount on the tram on the way down.

    I had asked at the hotel where to get off for Aprazivel and was told the name of the tram stop and was assured that the restaurant was on the square at the stop. Well, it was obvious that the instruction giver had never done this since there was no square at the stop. Instead, after pausing to ask several times for directions, we had to haul ourselves up a substantial hill and walk some more. Then to get into the restaurant we had to descend a steep flight of stairs that start at street level. Fortunately, it was well worth the effort.

    We dined in the outdoor garden overlooking the bay and downtown Rio, an absolutely gorgeous setting. This is your chance to have real heart of palm, baked in the palm log, which is far superior to the canned heart of palm familiar from salad bars, cans and jars. We also had tilapia and some salt water fish, accompanied by a Brazilian chardonnay, and mango and banana desserts. Espresso concluded the very reasonably priced meal (certainly by Antiquarius standards). Both the setting and the food were the best we had in Brazil. We both highly recommend this restaurant! (Unfortunately we couldn't return here for our last meal in Brazil since we were laden with suitcases and would have had to drag them up and down the steep flights of stairs.) A walk back to the tram station, then the Metro, and we returned to Copacabana very pleased with out afternoon adventure.

    Since our lunch was generous, dinner was just to keep our friends company while they ate close to the hotel at Arab, Av. Atlântica 1936. The pita bread , grilled to order, was the best we ever had, the baba ganoush was OK, and the caipirinhas subpar. Our companions enjoyed their more balanced Middle Eastern meals.

    Empadas at O Caranguejo, a trip up Sugar Loaf and Bahian cuisine at Yoruba

    Sugar Loaf, whose name is based on a misunderstanding between the native Indians and the Portuguese, is one of the distinctive peaks that hover over Rio. We admired it all week and decided on our last day Rio to take the cable car up. Of course you can't undertake something named Sugar Loaf while hungry, so we made a quick visit to O Caranguejo ( for lunch. It's a simple place on the corner of Ruo Barata Ribeiro and Xavier de Saviera, between Copacabana and Ipanema. There was a lot of good looking seafood just waiting to be cooked, and you might suspect that we're easily tempted when it comes to food, but we had to restrain ourselves since our companions were eager to mount the assault on Sugar Loaf. While our friends grazed on cheese empadas, Bruce and I devoured 4 shrimp and 2 crab empadas, all of them wonderful. Although I tried empadas at several places these were the only ones that I found memorable. Somewhat aggrieved at leaving so much food unsampled, we went with the plan and caught a cab for the quick ride to Sugar Loaf. The most important advice about Sugar Loaf is to have your cable car ticket available at all times since it is repeatedly scanned. After several scans I thought it was safe to rest my ticket in my purse and was rudely forced to reawaken it on short notice, not an easy task given the state of my purse. Two sets of cable cars whisk you to the top where you can see Rio spread out at your feet.

    After conquering Sugar Loaf our next task was to actually immerse our bodies in the waters that we had been admiring all week. Since the afternoon was late we settled on rolling up our pants and just wading, fudging the definition of having "swum" at Copacabana. Afterwards, as you would expect, we noticed that all that fresh air had awakened our dormant appetites, so after the customary caipirinhas on the hotel's roof, we headed to Yoruba, a Western African restaurant for dinner.

    Our cab driver had a difficult time finding the restaurant at Rua Arnaldo Quintela 94, Botafogo, not far from Sugar Loaf and our hotel. Many of the non-radio taxi drivers don't have cell phones so when they're lost they have to stop and ask for directions. He circled for quite some time, running up a bill of 20R ($10), before depositing us on a dark street in front of a building that had no indication of being a restaurant. (When Bruce declined the cabbies reduction in cab fare and insisted on paying what was shown on the meter he was quite pleased and gratefully shook Bruce's hand.)

    A man was quietly standing in front of an unmarked gate leading to a long walkway. Although he didn't look or act like the doorman to a restaurant, we inquired, "Yoruba?" and he gestured that his gate was the place. So we entered, with a mixture of relief and apprehension. The restaurant turned out to be quite an elegant place, decorated with African sculptures and green leaves over the floor. It was empty except for one couple that left shortly after we arrived. We wanted to try piripiri but it wasn't on the menu that night. (As usual, no one spoke English.) Our next choice was some sort of African fish stew that sounded unusual but the waitress recommended a Bahian crab dish and we relented. The food was good but not spicy enough for our taste. We regretted succumbing to the waitress's advice to order what was probably a dish bland enough for tourists. As the restaurant started filling up we noticed that many were ordering the large appetizer selection which we had skipped, concerned that it might diminish our appreciation of the more substantial fare. The restaurant called us a cab and we arrived back at the hotel within 10 minutes since every cabbie knows where Copacabana is.

    So ends our stay in Rio. Tomorrow we head off for the Amazon.

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    It's not at all difficult to visit Rio on your own. Not many people speak English but it's easy to get by. If you know Spanish or Italian that helps. We never had a cab driver who spoke English but that didn't matter as long as he understood where we wanted to go. The hotel staff spoke English so they handled dinner reservations.

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    thanks for posting this very entertaining and informative report - lots of good tips for other travellers here. I'm really looking forward to your report on the Amazon and Pantanal.



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    Trapped in Sao Paulo airport (again) and spooked by Lord Manaus

    Our GOL flight from Rio to Sao Paulo was scheduled to leave at 8:00 AM from the International Airport so we set off in plenty of time, even before breakfast was available at the hotel. Declining the hotel's offer of an 88R fixed price ride to the airport was a good move since it only cost us 35R to get there. The plane took off half an hour late but, since we had an hour and a half to make the connection to the GOL flight to Manaus, we weren't too concerned, especially since the stewardess assured us that GOL waits for passengers from connecting GOL flights and that we should just ask at the connections desk for gate information.

    At the connection desk, about 45 minutes before our scheduled departure to Manaus, the news was both good and bad. Somehow GOL felt it was good news to tell us that we were going to get a free lunch while we waited six hours for the next flight to Manaus. Seems that boarding closed and the plane took off without the two of us and without a Brazilian air force physician on our flight. (I mention the Manaus doc only as evidence that we didn't do something stupid but immediately located the desk and were ready to proceed to boarding.) I'm still not sure whether they actually changed the flight time from that shown on our e-tickets and boarding pass or whether they just left early. Unfortunately no other airline was going to Manaus in the intervening six hours, so we couldn't insist they put us on an earlier flight.

    The airline rep, who spoke minimal English, took us to baggage claim to pick up our luggage, handed us our lunch vouchers and told us to check in later for the next flight. Supposedly all our info would be in the computer system. We went upstairs with her and saw the huge crowds at the GOL counters--seems that their computers were down and everything was being done by hand. The young woman confidently assured us that it would be OK by the time we checked in and then she attempted to flee. It took her a while to realize that we would remain glued to her until we had boarding passes in hand and our travel agent was notified that we would not be on the scheduled flight.

    We contacted Brazil Nature Tours from the GOL offices and they made alternative arrangements, even though it was Saturday morning. Instead of going to the Amazon lodge directly from the airport, a five hour drive which can't be done in the dark, we would be transferred to a hotel in Manaus and picked up the next morning for the transfer to Anahvilanas. We insisted on an expedited check in and received that too. The rep (who had been scheduled to go off duty fifteen minutes before) was so relieved when we finally released our grip on her that she hugged us both good-bye.

    Once these transactions were complete we found the sole restaurant that honors GOL vouchers, deep in the bowels of the airport. Might as well have lunch since there's nothing else to do with the remaining four hours before flight time. (Well there was a branch of Devassa in the airport where you can have a good beer.) In case you're keeping score, the record so far--two Saturdays in Brazil and both of them spent trying to escape from the Sao Paulo airport.

    The flight to Manaus was long and boring, despite the crackers and juices that were meant to distract us.

    In Manaus we were met by a driver holding a sign with our names. At the time that seemed prudent and comforting, since the guide books characterized Manaus as seedy and dangerous after dark. (We navigated Manaus without any troubles on our return from the lodge and took a cab to the airport for 40R. I don't think we would have had any problems taking a cab from the airport to the hotel on our own.)

    Soon we were deposited at the Lord Manaus, supposedly the finest hotel in Manaus. Despite its lofty reputation it was deserted and dim on Saturday night, except for the woman at the desk and a combo bell boy/waiter, neither of whom spoke much English. Check in was a bit troublesome since we were voucherless and counting on the last minute arrangements that Brazil Nature Tours made. After a fairly lengthy delay, in which many pieces of paper were shuffled, a key was produced and we were shown to our room which overlooked the street where a large crowd of people were listening to very loud music. The room was spartan but reasonably clean and the shower was powerful enough for a good rinse. After rather cool days in Rio the heat and humidity of Manaus were oppressive, so the well functioning, though loud, air conditioner was most welcome.

    We were now ready to face the next big problem: What's for dinner? Bruce stubbornly nixed my suggestion to forget about dinner and just lock the door until pick up in the morning. Given Manaus' reputation, I was apprehensive about hailing a cab and heading to one of the restaurants recommended by our driver, especially since the room didn't have a safe and we were carrying our treasures with us. The driver's comments about the dangers of the restaurants other than those he recommended didn't help either.

    The hotel restaurant was dark and empty, but the busboy/waiter flipped on some lights and the air conditioner for us when, in a spirit of compromise, we finally entered. Although I didn't want to eat in a restaurant which may not have been used since the days of rubber barons, I know the disinfectant properties of alcohol and didn't have any problems with sampling a caipirinha while we reevaluated various options. The caipirinhas passed the test and Bruce proceeded to order dinner, despite my admonitions about possible dire consequences (from the food, not me). The fish was quite good and, despite my protestations that I wasn't hungry, I did manage to sneak food from Bruce's plate.

    The next morning an elaborate multi-item, included- in- the-room- rate breakfast buffet greeted us. Even Bruce had to admit that the buffet items were not making their first on stage appearance, despite his prominence as an invited speaker at obscure conferences. Summoning my past public health training, I carefully outlined what we could safely eat--the sealed yogurt and a piece of cake. To our great surprise, two other people entered the breakfast room and sat down, shattering our notion that we were the only ones in residence.

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    Despite the inconvenience and confusion at the time all of this was happening, it makes for some humorous reading after the fact. Still chuckling about the rubber barons. So your enthusiam for capirinhas stems from your public health training.

    Your experience on flights is what I often hear about. Throwing in a spare day could be a good tactic to combat the sorts of things you and the good Brazilian doctor went through. I'll keep that in mind when traveling in the future.

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    Lynn--thanks for reading (and commenting!). We usually follow your suggestion of building in an extra day to make sure we arrive on time at some "can't miss a day, gotta be there" destination. Since this was just a domestic Brazilian flight I failed to anticipate the problems we encountered. Lesson learned...

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    On the road to Anavilhanas

    I anguished over what we should do in Amazonia: stay at a hotel or resort in the Manaus area and take day trips, get on a boat and stay on the water, go to a lodge close to Manaus, or maybe fly from Manaus to Tefe and head to Uakari Floating Lodge, an acclaimed bird watching destination? The New York Times came to the rescue with an article that mentioned Anavilhanas lodge, This seemed like a reasonable compromise: close enough to Manaus not to require another flight but far enough away to be clear of hordes of tourists; small number of guests; interesting location in the largest river archipelago in the world; good guides; no mosquitoes since the Rio Negro is too acidic for them; and it just so happens, excellent food ( We booked a four night package which rapidly dwindled to three nights as we involuntarily extended our stay in the Sao Paulo airport to take advantage of the free lunch.

    The air conditioned Anavilhanas van picked us up from the Lord Manaus and we joined six passengers who had already been retrieved from the airport (transfers to hotels in Manaus and the airport are included in the rates). The English speaking guide handed out a small map and a description of our route, which turned out to be somewhat different from the one we actually took, and then got off the van--leaving us with the Portuguese-speaking driver. Based on two trips, the transfer takes about four and a half hours, which is somewhat more than the Anavilhanas website promises. The first part is a half hour or so river crossing on a ferry (which, since it was Sunday, came fully equipped with a loudly preaching minister), followed by a long, boring van ride on a well-paved road through old rubber plantations. About half an hour before the lodge we were stopped by a swine-flu roadblock during which the health authorities asked the driver if any of us were ill. (I wonder what would have happened if the driver said yes?)

    During the drive I noticed that one of the passengers in the row in front of us was cradling a long black tube on his lap. Today I would assume it was a blow-gun , but at the time I was bored, curious and had gone through enough security checks to ask Bruce, in whispered tones, what he thought it was. He immediately recognized it as a Galileoscope (, an inexpensive but reasonably good-quality telescope turned out in large volume to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the telescope. Turns out the three people in the row before us were astronomers coming from the same conference Bruce had been at. (One evening they set up the telescope at the swimming pool, using Bruce's camera tripod as the base, and we all admired the Amazonian skies.)

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    The Lodge

    On arrival at the lodge we were greeted with towels and several varieties of freshly squeezed juice, including one that was described as "the strange juice." Of course that's the one we drank and it was both refreshing and delicious. All meals and activities are included in the room rate except for beverages of any kind, although a liter of bottled water is left without extra charge in the room each day and can be taken to meals.

    Housing is in duplex cottages, each occupied by two pairs of guests. The room and bed are quite comfortable, there's a hammock on the veranda, and (this is important) there is a powerful air conditioning unit which is under your control. The bathroom is large and has a shower with good water pressure and heated water; two sinks are outside the bathroom. Anavilhanas includes a separate dining area and a common area with a pool table, books, and free wi-fi if you have your own computer. Otherwise you have to pay to use the communal computer, or just give computers the cold shoulder while on vacation, as we did. There's also an attractive swimming pool on a bluff overlooking the river and an outdoor hammock room for recharging. The pool was popular between activities or instead of them.

    All the meals were well prepared, and were served buffet style. They featured local fish, meat, a vegetarian option, some side dishes, and three desserts. Your room key has a wooden animal attached to it, and that's the animal you look for to find your table in the dining room. (Appropriately ours was the sloth.) Tables seat two so you don't have to put up with other guests unless you're feeling sociable.

    Along with room keys you're given your activity schedule which depends on the number of days you're staying. On any given day you're scheduled for two or three activities, each of which lasts 2-3 hours and includes 6-8 people. Except for archery, activities are away from the lodge and you take a boat to your starting point.


    Our first activity, after lunch of course, was the jungle walk, a well guided two-hour trek through the jungle, stopping frequently to learn about native trees and birds. Although it was steamy and hot, the jungle provided good shade, the walk was comfortable, and the explanations and stories were interesting. After the walk you canoe back to the lodge, which turns out to be quite close. Although we heard a lot of birds, seeing them was difficult. That turned out to be true for our entire stay in the Amazon, we heard lots of intriguing sounds but rarely could we see the source. (Dedicated birders saw much more than we did, at least based on their animated conversations. No doubt, our inexperience contributed mightily to our failure to observe interesting flying objects.)

    The next morning we were assigned to tour a small native village. Bruce was very unenthusiastic, still traumatized by memories of our very uncomfortable visit to a Maasai village in Kenya that had played out as a guilt trip. Unlike in Kenya this was a well planned, unstressful visit. Again the first step was a pleasant 20 minute or so boat ride on the Rio Negro, followed by a leisurely walk through the tiny village of 10 or so homes, stopping often to listen to our guide talk about life on the river. Most of the men were away, the women went about their activities without paying any attention to us, the children played, again seemingly oblivious to our wanderings. At the end of the visit there was a small display of beaded items made by the women but there was absolutely no pressure to buy and no attempt to sell. Fortunately I had brought some money and gladly bought beads to support the women's efforts.

    After lunch and a cooling nap in the air conditioned room we headed out to our second activity--native bow and arrow shooting. This was a lame activity but Bruce enjoyed polishing his archery skills, despite having the grand prize of a free caipirinha unjustly snatched from his grip by a man who, without any penalty imposed, failed to launch his first 10 arrows! Speaking of caipirinhas this is where we tried some of the more exotic fruit flavored versions which we decided, after having drunk them, were inferior to the traditional lime ones.

    The next morning we headed out for probably the most enjoyable activity--swimming with the remarkably friendly pink dolphins. You're given a plate of fish scraps and you can feed the dolphins from the dock or disrobe and join them. Bruce went into the water while I observed from the dock. The half-dozen dolphins know what's coming and are eager to get to know you. After an hour of playing with the dolphins we reassembled to walk into the fairly large (for the central Amazon) city of Novo Airao, population 15,000. Our destination was a workshop which teaches woodworking to reformed narcotic abusers. By then it was noon, the sun very hot and the walk tedious and uninteresting since the streets were deserted and the architecture drab. There are "motorcycle taxis" which require you to sit on the back part of the seat holding onto the specially designed vest of the driver, but these seemed even less appealing than trudging.

    The workshop, which supplies Anavilhanas with many of its decorations, had a well stocked store from which you can purchase crafts made by the students. We bought a small sloth, just liked the one that graced our dining table, and some similar items. If we hadn't all been exhausted by the long walk we probably would have been more enthusiastic customers. The bad news was that we had to walk another couple of miles to get back to the river and the boat. Fortunately someone at the workshop took pity on us and stuffed us into a van for the trip back to the boat. I think the lodge is being a good neighbor by taking guests on this shopping expedition, and we were all happy to support a good cause, but the long, dusty walk should be made optional. (It's possible that the lodge doesn't want to compete with the motorcycle taxi business.) We returned to Anavilhanas hot and tired and decided to skip the afternoon activity--piranha fishing. Instead we lazed by the inviting pool. The report from the fisherpeople upon their return pleased us--too hot, no piranhas biting.

    Our last evening, after dinner, we were scheduled for caiman spotting. The evening was pleasant and we enjoyed the boat ride, even if only one small caiman caught the attention of the guide. (He also pulled a snake out of a tree.) If we had known how numerous the caiman would be in the Pantanal, we could have easily skipped this activity. The next morning was our chance to go watch the sunrise, an outing that starting at 5:00 AM or so. Again, a beautiful boat ride and a glorious sunrise, accompanied by the sounds of the jungle. As we crossed the Rio Negro before sunrise, a very impressive fireball (a very large meteor) hissed and sputtered overhead, the first we've ever seen anywhere!

    If you stay three nights you don't get to do all of the excursions. We didn't go on a canoe trip through the small branches of the river, on the tour of the archipelago and on an excursion to some distant caves.

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    Overall we were very pleased with our stay at Anavilhanas. Although time consuming to reach, even once you haul yourself to Manaus, the result is a comfortable, enjoyable, mosquito- free "Amazon-lite experience." The extraordinary setting, the small number of guests (32 max), good guides and great rooms and food all contribute to a memorable stay. (If you're a serious explorer who doesn't need creature comforts and wants to hack your way through the jungles, eating insects and plants, obviously this isn't for you. If you're an extremely serious birder or wildlife enthusiast who wants nonstop observing, you'll also probably be restless.) This is also not the place for families with small children who might be bored by the structured activities geared to adults. You can't just return to the lodge with Junior, since you're all out on a boat together. Other than the swimming pool, pool table, and, of course, the caipirinhas, or reasonably priced wine, there's not much to do if you don't participate in the outings.

    Seaplane to Manaus and on to Sao Paulo

    The day before we were to leave I watched a seaplane come in to retrieve some guests. I couldn't help but think how fascinating it would be to fly over the archipelago to Manaus. An aerial view would give us a better notion of where we had been and of the vastness of the rivers and jungles. And we had never flown on a seaplane. What better place for a seaplane than the Amazon river? (We would also arrive in Manaus in less than an hour but that didn't really influence the decision since the cost of the plane was great enough that it wasn't worth it just to knock off some time in the van.)

    The owner of the lodge explained that several groups of guests at the lodge arranged to take the seaplane that I saw for the return to Manaus. He asked if we would like him to enquire whether the other 2 guests leaving the day we were wanted to share a seaplane with us. We could take a smaller seaplane that seats 5, reducing costs. Unfortunately the other couple thought it was too expensive (and it was pricey), but we viewed it as an unique opportunity and decided to go it alone, paying a supplement to fly over the Meeting of the Waters, since that would require another half hour or so of flying.

    The seaplane was scheduled to land before the van took off for the airport so if, for some reason it couldn't land, we could take the van back to Manaus. We put our luggage in the van so we wouldn't have to deal with it in Manaus and arranged to meet the van driver at 12:30 at the airport, four and a half hours after he left Anavilhanas and that was exactly when the van arrived at the designated rendezvous.

    As we had hoped, from the seaplane we enjoyed wonderful views of the Rio Negro, the Anavilhanas archipelago, and the surrounding area. What a great way to travel! From the air the Meeting of the Waters, the confluence of the dark Rio Negro with the muddy colored upper Amazon River, or Solimões, as it is known in Brazil, is absolutely amazing. For the first stretch the line between black water and brown water is absolutely straight, then you start to get increasingly complex eddies of each color surfacing within the other. Quite a sight.

    We landed at the Tropical Hotel outside Manaus where the seaplane is headquartered, received lapel pins indicating that we had flown on the plane, and were led inside the hotel where, once the broken credit card reader was repaired, we charged our trip, no doubt paying for the stupid lapel pins as well. A perfunctory inspection of the Tropical didn't impress, and we decided we were glad we didn't stay there and try to daytrip. (We did meet some people who had stayed there and they weren't particularly pleased since they felt captive and taken advantage of at the hotel which is a 50R cab ride from the center of Manaus, and much further from any interesting rain forest. Manaus has some strange "fixed fare" taxi system where it's supposed to cost you 50R, regardless of where you go, though we paid 40R to go from the main square to the airport and 50R to go from the Tropical Hotel to the main square in Manaus.)

    At Anavilhanas there were interesting sculptures on the dining room walls and, when we admired them, the owner told us he had bought them at Galeria Amazonica in Manaus, (directly behind you when you stand facing the main door of the famous Manaus Opera House, ).
    Locating the shop was easy and shopping inside was even easier: air conditioning, interesting, well priced merchandise, excellent displays, helpful staff and a couch to plant the spouse on while you shop. In fact, it was much too easy to shop. What was I thinking when I bought a three-foot long wooden mask and a 40-inch long miniature blow gun that I thought was a decorative cane?! The blow gun, which wouldn't fit in a suitcase, ignited intense interest at each of the seven security checks we had to pass before arriving home, despite our clever attempts to reinvent it as a cane, complete with a rubber foot swiped from the tripod. I'll never buy a miniature blow gun again if I'm flying, even if it is a steal at $25. There were several other stores on the square but I didn't bother to check them out since I couldn't possibly carry anymore treasures.

    By light of day Manaus was much more appealing than we remembered it from our Saturday night visit. The Opera House's dome glistened, though the Opera House was not open for tours when we were there, the large square in front of the Opera House was an inviting place to sit. Since we had to be at the airport to meet the Anavilhanas van we didn't have time for lunch in Manaus, although we did stop at the Africa House, right on the square, for some freshly squeezed juice.

    From Manaus' modern airport, after partially unwrapping the blow gun and discussing it in great detail with airport security in a language they didn't understand, we flew to Sao Paulo, for the third time, spending the night at the airport Marriott before flying to Campo Grande and the Pantanal. The airport Marriott met all airport hotel requirements: free and frequent shuttle, clean, good bed and acceptable food, even late at night.

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    "We booked a four night package which rapidly dwindled to three nights as we involuntarily extended our stay in the Sao Paulo airport to take advantage of the free lunch."

    As would anyone. Who can pass up a free lunch?

    A blow gun would have been more interesting, but probably not to the endangered species.

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    "Except for archery, activities are away from the lodge and you take a boat to your starting point."

    I hope archery is not too close to the lodge. Especially if people are shooting who don't know how to launch their arrows. It wouldn't be safe to head to the bar for a capirinha.

    An anthropological faux pas with the blowpipe. Oh well, cane, blowpipe, telescope, what's really the difference anyway.

    That's nice you got a seaplane ride.

    The caiman spotting activity is humorous, given you were headed to the Pantanal.

    Your comment allowed me to overcome my disappointment of not trying a passion fruit capirinha when I was in the Pantanal.

    The dolphin swim!
    How many people are in the water at the same time with the dolphins?
    How clear or murky was the water?
    Why didn't you go in too?
    Did they provide snorkel gear? Wet suits?
    How cold was the water?

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    Lynn, thanks so much for continuing to read. Yes, no need to spot caiman in the Pantanal--too many to count!

    The pink dolphins come each day to the dock of a restaurant. There were 7 of us and a similar number of friendly dolphins. No need for snorkel gear or wet suits since the Rio Negro temperature is pleasant. The water was somewhat murky which is why I stayed on the dock and observed (and took video).

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    Why the Pantanal?
    As we sat in our upgraded business seat on TAM, a consequence I believe of my asking for an exit row seat with more leg room, and not so they could keep better track of the now unwrapped blow gun/cane which was of utmost concern to security until Bruce just took it and hobbled off, I remembered how I had first learned of the existence of the Pantanal.

    Two years ago, I was lured to the South American board from the Africa board to read about atravelynn's adventures in some place called the Pantanal:

    Lynn's reports are always amusing and informative and this was no exception. While admiring the photos I suggested to Bruce that he read the report for enjoyment and not because we'd ever go there. Neither of us was even exactly sure where all of this high drama was taking place and I knew we would never sit out in the cold at midnight to watch hairy wolves being fed in some seminary, or make lists of birds whose names we couldn't pronounce or spell and whose song would go in one ear and out the other.

    Fast forward a couple of years and we're heading off to a conference in Brazil but not quite sure where to go after Rio de Janeiro and the Amazon. Since we're not beach types, and have fairly recently seen Victoria Falls, the Pantanal seems like a natural fit. After all, it's the only other place we know anything about. So, despite our initial certainty that we'd never end up in the Pantanal, we're on our way.

    I won't pretend that Bruce and I are dedicated wildlife enthusiasts. This report contains none of the detailed, painstaking lists and descriptions that are the footprints of a serious visitor, especially a birder. We were in the Pantanal to see some interesting animals and birds and to just enjoy being Pantaneros.

    (For serious discussion of the Southern Pantanal consult:
    To decide if you should go to the North or the South Pantanal see: )

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    Choosing a Lodge

    Caiman Ecological Refuge ( ) seems to be the largest eco-tourism resort in the Southern Pantanal, housing 28 guests in two separate lodges. Although it generally receives good reviews we were apprehensive about participating in structured activities geared to fairly large groups, either 12 or 16 people depending on what lodge you're assigned to and whether it's full. Caiman appeared to be fairly regimented accepting guests only on Sundays and Thursdays for programs of either 3 or 4 nights. (A couple in the Amazon who had stayed at Caiman confirmed that it was too regimented for their liking.)

    We also considered the Jaguar Research Center, but they failed to respond to inquiries and a google for alternate e-mail addresses uncovered some allegations which gave us pause. Barranco Alto's ( ) reviews were quite positive and, except for its difficult to reach location, it seemed like a good choice with flexibility for individual interests--but it was fully booked. Based on a recommendation from Brazilian Nature Tours we selected Embiara Lodge ( ), which had only recently opened for tourism, with two newly built cottages and a maximum number of 6 guests. It currently shares an air strip with neighbor Barranco Alto, only 20 minutes away by road, though its own private airstrip is scheduled to open soon. Although we had five nights the hassle of changing lodges, especially when they are far from each other, prompted us to stay in one place.

    Getting to Embiara

    Although this was supposed to be the dry season it was raining sufficiently hard when we landed at Campo Grande (pronounced Granje) that the airport was closed to small planes, forcing us to scrap our plan of flying directly to Embiara. (If we had arrived later we would have had to return (again) to Sao Paulo since the airport was closed to all traffic!) Brazilian Nature Tours is headquartered in Campo Grande so they knew the weather conditions and met us with the news that we would be driven to Aquidauna, a two hour ride on a good paved road, and flown to Embiara from there, weather allowing. (You can also get to Embiara by driving 6-7 hours from Campo Grande, the last 4 or so on a gravel road.)

    Aquidauna airport is just a hanger with several planes, surrounded by fields. We watched with ever increasing apprehension as a plane was fueled, surrounded by an old man with a very unsteady gait and shaking hands, a barefoot 12 year old, and a slightly older fellow sporting flip-flops. The assortment of possible pilots was not reassuring, especially as it continued to rain. When our driver reappeared we were relieved to learn that he was the pilot, although he had left his plane in Campo Grande and was borrowing an unfamiliar plane here. After some discussion with the locals on the operation of this plane he took off with two nervous passengers. We knew if this little plane crashed we would always be remembered for our stupidity. What were they thinking flying in a tiny plane in the rain in the middle of Brazil to go see some birds and anteaters?!

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    It appears the trepidation over the plane ride from Aquidauna (which I would have experienced too) to the free lunch at Sao Paulo's airport to the blow gun security issues are all my fault. I take the blame but how nice of you to give me so much credit.

    Can't wait to see what the Pantanal held for you!

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    After further thought, I realize I can claim credit or take blame only for the Pantanal portion. Therefore if your blow gun never makes it out of Dulles on the way back, don't blame me.

    "You can also get to Embiara by driving 6-7 hours from Campo Grande, the last 4 or so on a gravel road." I'll keep that in mind for Embiara or Barranco Alto.

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    After some discussion with the locals on the operation of this plane he took off

    That's reassuring! :))

    You certainly had your share of flight mishaps but it's making for entertaining reading. Will there be photos? Looking forward to more!

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    Embiara Lodge

    Despite the intermittent rain, the flight and landing were exemplary (we made it alive!) and our touchdown was witnessed by an enthusiastic group: Marina from Barranco Alto, her little daughter, five of their guests and the owner of Embiara Lodge, Paul Grol, together with a ranch hand. The Barranco Alto guests had been waiting since early morning for a no-show plane that was to take them to Campo Grande and they were hoping to catch a ride with the pilot that brought us. That explained the enthusiasm and the crowd for our arrival. (Since they didn't know that the airport was closed they were very concerned about missing their connections.)

    Paul's concern was not about our blowgun but about lunch which was waiting for us at the lodge, so we climbed into one of Embiara's comfortable cars without further security checks. (There are two vehicles for activities, both with enclosed cabins and elevated three in a row outdoor seating.) In twenty minutes we were seated at the table feasting on steak, vegetables and salads, an excellent introduction to the incredible dishes that spring from the kitchen and that will provide extra padding for that trip home if you're not careful. Lunches were "local" dishes, fish and beef from the area, cooked in a traditional manner, while dinners were "international" including tortellini al brodo, Indonesian shrimp and rice, and lasagna. The local dishes were our favorites since we like to eat regional cuisine.

    Paul has owned the property for ten years but this is the first year it's open for tourism. Despite many spirited conversations I remain confused about his exact background: he's a Dutchman/Brazilian/Brit who lived in Rio, among many other places, but now has a home outside of London and a varied work history including financier and banker. What's most important is that he's a great hands-on host with genuine concern that you enjoy the Pantanal and Embiara. He accompanied us on many of our activities and joined us for dinner and caipirinhas every evening. (You have to muddle the caipirinhas yourself since the kitchen seems to skip this important step!)

    Guests stay in one of the two recently built "cottages" which are furnished with a large bed, sitting area with table and pull out couch, large bathroom with hot shower and two sinks, and a wonderful large wraparound veranda with a hammock and rocking chairs, overlooking a pasture, or in a slightly less expensive room in the main lodge. We quickly settled in to our well appointed cottage, glad that we were staying for five nights and could actually unpack.

    The lodge was now full with six guests but two would peel off each day and we would be left alone for the last three nights. There's usually a morning and afternoon activity with meals interspersed, as well as a hide (a.k.a. blind) by the river for observing during free time. You can take walks around the area unescorted, except when wild buffalo are in residence, as they were during most of our visit. We were never bored (or hungry!) and could modify the guided activities to suit us. Embiara hires free lance guides, as do many of the lodges. Our fluent English speaking guide Manoela was excellent, constantly amazing us with her observational skills and encyclopedic knowledge, plus her ability to call birds with recordings played on an amplified iPod.

    Our first activity, an evening safari with Paul, came to an abrupt end due to a fierce storm but not before we befriended a jabiru stork who followed our vehicle, perhaps thinking we were fishermen who would throw out some tasty morsels. Weather patterns in the Pantanal, like in so many places, are deviating from the usual--a dry rainy season and now a rainy dry season. Before our arrival a huge storm broke the grip of an intense heat wave and toppled many trees which slowed driving; throughout our stay the weather was quite cool and the possibility of rain ever present. Good planning (thanks, Lynn!) to bring rain jackets and warm clothes.

    Over caipirinhas we met the other guests, a jolly pair of women from Scotland and a babymooning English couple, cutting it very close with a seven and a half month pregnancy. Why would you travel to such a remote destination so late in a first pregnancy with a high-risk "old" mom?! That made some of our questionable decisions seem downright sensible. The expectant parents left the next morning, fortunately without the stork making a return appearance.

    In the morning we set off for a long walk with Manoela, stopping repeatedly to listen to birds and to see them when we were quick enough to follow her directions. This was also the scene of my greatest ornithological triumph: a bird with a white rump is perched in a tree and I whisper loudly: WHITE RUMPED MOJITO, (the most famous bird of the Pantanal for fodorites everywhere.) Our companions are awe struck by my brilliance, Bruce is doubled over with laughter, and Manoela gently corrects me: White Rumped Monjita. Oops! but close enough to be staggeringly brilliant. It was downhill from there for me on wildlife identification...

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    A large group of giant river otters inhabits the river close to the lodge and we observed them for some time from the hide. In particular the rituals surrounding their toilet behavior were fascinating to watch: they very carefully bury their treasures in the sand, and prior to river re-entry all otter offspring were required to make a pit stop and then clean up. The highlight of our evening drive was observing an amazing giant anteater with her child -- a creature which makes a wildebeest seem graceful, well-designed, and thoughtfully constructed. Anteaters were definitely our favorites.

    The many jaguar footprints around the lodge encouraged Manoela to plan a 4:30 AM jaguar safari for the next morning. Based on historical data from both Paul and Manoela, I knew this was a long shot, but we compliantly poured ourselves into the vehicle and set off. Although we only saw jaguar prints, we were comforted by knowing that the jaguar probably saw us... Although the jaguar eluded us, we did see a puma and a jaguarundi during our stay. We also witnessed a black-and-white hawk eagle (Manoela had never seen one) standing atop a partially devoured toucan. When we returned half an hour later, on the way back to the lodge, eagle and toucan were high in a treetop.

    Our days were happily spent enjoying the remarkable variety of birds and other animals which call the Pantanal home (see Lynn's list for details!), except when it was storming. We even saw a giant anteater with the baby off her back. On our last day, Bruce's birthday (hint: the two digits add to 12), he wanted to find interesting small objects to photograph with his macro lens so we set off for another walk. Photos of flowers, nuts and seeds were painstakingly (and artistically, of course) snapped. Then we came upon a fire ant nest which I saw as something to flee, while Bruce saw it as an opportunity for photographic expression. The fire ants celebrated Bruce's birthday with 70 or so bright red kisses to his legs... (Somehow, he didn't even get any good pictures). The day was salvaged by a special birthday barbeque and incredible cake from the Embiara kitchen.

    The unpredictable and sometimes stormy weather concerned me. Every time it rained, I wondered what would happen if our plane couldn't come get us. When the sun reappeared I debated trying to flee the Pantanal while we could. (Since it's at least a 6 hour drive to Campo Grande, we couldn't catch our early afternoon flight to Sao Paulo unless we left well before the scheduled plane arrival.) When we were ready to leave, luck was with us and our plane landed in Campo Grande with only a slight glitch--the onboard transponder didn't work so we couldn't land in the big Campo Grande airport, but had to land in a smaller one a half-hour drive away.

    Once we arrived at the Campo Grande International airport, all attention focused once again on that ridiculous blow gun. As we approached the check-in counter a woman directing traffic addressed us loudly (in Portuguese) and shook her head no, as Bruce leaned very lamely on his cane. The man issuing the boarding passes laughed her off and told us (in English) that she thought the cane was a bow-and-arrow. This was a discussion we didn't want to have so we smiled, grabbed the boarding passes and headed for the cafe for some lunch. (The Camp Grande airport has a fairly large restaurant with both buffet and menu items. It's to the left of the check in counters if you're facing them.)

    There was a long line at the security counter so we slipped by unchallenged. My fear now was that Bruce was overdoing his lame act and would break the flimsy, hollow device by putting too much weight on it. We couldn't abandon it now, it was almost part of the family. Our final destination was Rio, but we had to pass through Sao Paulo again, a sinkhole that had trapped us before. Despite delays in Sao Paulo and more discussion about the blow gun with security we reached our hotel in Ipanema without any problems. It was poor planning to return to Rio for one night before catching another flight that inevitably went back through Sao Paulo, but that was the price we paid for free tickets.

    The flight to Dulles was uneventful, except for security checks in Rio and Sao Paulo where puzzled screeners huddled over x-ray cameras before letting Bruce through. The screeners in Dulles must have had a special session devoted to "unusual and lethal" devices since Bruce was summoned back to the security area while putting his shoes on and subjected to extensive interrogation while several agents inspected the innocent hollow cane and speculated about the purpose of smaller side tubes--which in fact were intended to mimic quivers of curare-laced darts. When he emphatically proclaimed "this is my mobility assistance device," they relented, perhaps recalling a buzzword from their training, although one agent suggested they could search the web for images of similar objects.

    Too soon we landed in Chicago and this trip that clearly exceeded expectations came to an end.

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    I bet that's the last blow gun you buy as a souvenir. With 70 fire ant bites, Bruce is lucky he didn't need a "mobility assistance device." That must have been terrible.

    You saw a puma!? Hardly anybody sees a puma. Where? When? I bet your guide was surprised. And few people see a jagarundi.

    The hide/blind seems interesting. Are any of your photos taken from it? If so, I'd like to know which ones.

    Monjita, Mojito, what's the difference among friends anyway? Glad we could give Bruce a laugh with that one, though.

    The black and white hawk eagles must be entering the area. That was the birding highlight of our trip and the guide's behavior certainly indicated the rarity of the sighting. And your guide had never seen one before either.

    That's great you saw the anteater with a baby. The otters are a lucky find too and witnessing bathroom behavior is unique.

    Thanks for a most entertaining report.

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    Thanks so much for taking the time to write this report. I loved reading it and looked forward to every new chapter. I know how much work goes into one of these reports, and I really appreciate your doing it.
    I'll be going to Brazil in April and will try to do as good as job as you did re-telling the journey.

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    thank you so much for this great report. How lucky to see a giant anteater with young, and a puma and jaguarundi.

    Hope Bruce recovered from the fire ants OK, what a way to celebrate a birthday.



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    Thanks so much for this detailed and entertaining report! It is so helpful to learn about lodges this way, though this hasn't made it any easier to pick a Pantanal lodge -- Embiara sounds really nice! I am having a hard time deciding between North and South Pantanal..

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    You had otters all over, in the water and amazingly out of the water. Nice variety of macaws too. The blue and yellow are hard to find. The anteater with the baby is just precious--a really outstanding sighting. The ant bites are just awful. Nice and close with the dolphins.

    A most successful trip!

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    Thank you for the wonderful report. We also did Amazon and the Patanal in our 12-day trip. Here's my takeaway:

    1. Booking.

    I suggest finding a tour operator for non-city trips in big countries. I did my own planning and booking for Ecuador and CR. But with Brazil, I couldn't get far creating an itinerary on my own.

    We worked with BNT. Emailed them for a suggestion on "spending 12 days, to the Patanal, and if possible, the Amazons."

    Heard back right away with a few itineraries at different price points. From the descriptions, we choose this one:

    4 nights at Anavilhanas Lodge (later, Anavilhanas said they were actually booked up, so we changed to Juma Lodge)
    4 nights at Embiara

    2. Air travel.
    Get ready for some serious flying if you want to do Amazon+Patanal. We must've spent a total of 2 full-days on plane seats. Brazil is such a big country.

    3. Lodges
    Juma was alright overall. Food was good and filling. Guides were good. Rooms were nice. The lake view from the room was *excellent*. It was a screen saver. The only 2 things I wished were different was 1. noise construction of new cabins (as of Aug 2009) and 2. motor boat traffic on the lake.

    Juma did upgrade us from standard room to lake view room though. And they tried to do the construction around the times we were out on activities. I give them credit for doing that. But the speed boats on the lake couldn't be helped, I think, since it is a large lake, and almost all the boats we saw around were motor ones.

    We liked very much Embiara's lodging, atmosphere and wildlife. Thanks to Paul preserving it. We also had Manoela as our guide. She was superb.

    All in all, we had a good time in Brazil. The highlight of the trip was actually working with BNT. We had some issues with my credit card. It took 2 months to resolve. Never once did John push us during this time. At the end, everything was resolved.

    It really made a difference for us feeling that we had someone to help us in a big country.

    Happy travels everyone!

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    Leatherback-- I agree with everything you wrote with the exception that "the highlight of the trip was actually working with BNT." I find giant anteaters and Amazon sunsets much more amazing than BNT, although I very much appreciate the great services provided by BNT.

    Patty--yes, that's Bruce's infamous Akubra which survived its trip to East Africa.

    Lynn--we're thinking South East Asia but who knows where we'll end up. I saw that you're considering India and tigers. Check for school groups before you book!

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    Marija, re: India and tigers what do you mean "check for school groups before you book"? We've already booked this for Feb 2010...uh oh?

    Good to hear a second thumbs up on's filed away for future use.


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