Monday, March 31, 2014

"I Wanna Be a Part of BA, Buenos Aires..."

Don't cry for me, Argentina. 

The truth is I tremendously enjoyed my first day in Buenos Aires.

My flight from Rio on GOL airlines was perfectly smooth. Utilizing an inexpensive airport bus that took me to a central location from which a car took me to my hotel, I arrived at the Argenta Tower and Suites around 2pm.

I knew Paolo's flight was arriving about 40 to 60 minutes behind mine, so after checking into my room I killed some time listening to the Cubs Pirates game on WGN Radio through my MLB At Bat app.

Paolo arrived, but unbeknownst to me was on a different flight from his friend Suzanne with whom he had been in Chile.

So as he checked in and settled in, I went a wandering.

That first 90 minutes of activity in Buenos Aires, which included walking a grand boulevard called Av 9 Julio, seeing an obelisk monument and the Teatro Colon, then proceding to the Plaza de Mayo to see the Casa Rosada--the former presidential palace where Eva Peron famously spoke to the throngs in the square--and back to my hotel past the Torre de Inglesis, photographing everything of course, was more enthralling than anything I experienced in Rio de Janeiro.

Perhaps it's because Buenos Aires--as has often been referenced--feels quite European with grand architecture, many monuments and open spaces, but it just had a vibe that I really relished.

After Suzanne arrived, we ventured to pick up our Lollapalooza tickets from a store we were referenced to by the official ticket vendor, only to learn that such pickup had ended a week ago.

So will have to get the tickets at the Lollapalooza grounds, whose distance from the central area of Buenos Aires is already posing questions about how to get there and back, and now it seems we'll have to head there even earlier than I might have planned.

So I plan to wake up early and do a bit more roaming on my own, and then head to Lollapalooza with Paolo and Suzanne. I don't physically like the festival experience much anymore, but plan to take things at my own speed. I'm looking forward to seeing Nine Inch Nails and Arcade Fire, or perhaps just hearing them.

So I'll cut this off in a moment to get to bed, but wanted to note the excellent dinner we had at a place Paolo knew of called Cabana Las Lilas. He says its known as one of the best steakhouses in South America.

It isn't a churriscaria like in Brazil; rather I--and Paolo--got a big piece of steak called Bife de Chorizo, which despite the name isn't made of sausage, but rather a nice cut of beef. I don't think I liked it as much as steaks earlier this year at CUT in Las Vegas and Smith & Wollensky in Chicago, but it was nonetheless quite tasty.

And including a number of sides and drinks the bill came to only about $40 per person. I like this Argentinian exchange rate; even a taxi back to the hotel from dinner was only about $3.75. We couldn't take the Metro for less than that.

I appreciate anyone who's been reading each of these recaps; I enjoy sharing my adventures with you. Given the expectation of getting back to the hotel from Lollapalooza quite late the next two nights, I don't know if I'll be posting until perhaps even Friday.

But BA has been great so far, and tomorrow and Wednesday it should really rock.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

A Day at the Beach, A Night at Maracana ... and Bye, Bye, Brazil

Sure, sometimes I have to remind myself, but in traveling--and heck, in life--if it all works out in the end, just be happy.

I could grumble that for the second night in a row I was angrily disappointed and dismayed at the food quality, service, tenor and value of a restaurant recommended by the hotel, this time La Fiducia Ristorante. The special I wanted was unavailable, it took four waiters to understand that I wanted a Coke Zero--I understand English isn't all that widely spoken here, but for a restaurant just off Copacabana Beach, c'mon (BTW Coke Zero is standard here, rather than Diet Coke)--I got a penne pasta not much better than in Michelini's frozen meal, I was charged about $9 for a bread basket I never actually ordered and I was happier than the East Indian patrons next to me who were served meat dishes despite being vegetarian.

I could rue having paid four times the ticket price itself to go on a tour to a soccer game at Maracana stadium--run by ViaCopa--only to wind up sitting by myself and having the tour guide exit the stadium without meeting me and others where he said he would. I eventually found him and the shuttle van outside. But not only was I tempted to take the Metro back to my hotel, I could have taken it to the game and bought a ticket there as only about 16,000 of 78,000 seats were used.

I could bemoan that the Favela tour I had signed up to take at 9am today was changed to 11am, making it non-conducive for me around the soccer game (I did get my money back).

But I am  lucky to be in Rio de Janeiro and life is good.

This morning, with the favela tour out of the picture--and though I heard it's quite insightful, I was a bit wary about poverty tourism--I went over to Copacabana Beach, sat out for a a while, saw some pretty women and actually went into the water a few times. It felt great to have the waves wash over me, and nothing was stolen while I was wading around. I still don't think I'm ready for a full beach vacation, as an hour was enough, but I'm glad I took advantage of the opportunity.

The soccer--i.e. futebol--game between Fluminense and Vasco de Gama in a Rio state semifinal match, was a lot of fun. I wound up sitting next to a non-tour couple that spoke no English but were rather nice to me. Though the game was far from sold out, the Vasco contingent was especially loud and raucous and I got a good sense of the passion Brazilians have for soccer, upon the hallowed pitch of Maracana. Vasco won 1-0 and their fans were happy.

I am now back at my hotel, and though my four days in Rio have left me with doubts if this city is really tourist-ready for the World Cup and 2016 Olympics--I wouldn't want to come back for either--I certainly have had many wonderful experiences, and none really rotten ones in the whole scheme of things.   

As I posted earlier my hotel was terrific--if not so hot with the restaurant recommendations--and I should have some great photos to share beyond the ones I posted to Flickr.

Tomorrow morning I fly to Buenos Aires, and look forward to meeting up with Paulo, exploring that great city--let's assume--and enjoying Lollapalooza (as best I can).

Satisfaction Overnight: Kudos to the Mirasol Copacabana Hotel

I am sitting in the hotel lobby waiting for a tour group to collect me for a futebol game at Maracana stadium.

I'll recap that later, as well as my morning on the beach--and in the water--but with a few minutes to kill, I thought I'd commend (and recommend) the Mirasol Copacabana Hotel.

I booked the hotel on with no external recommendations--I really miss Rick Steves when travel beyond Europe--for 3 primary reasons:

1) Location very close to Copacabana Beach
2) Location very close to a Metro station (though I only used it once)
3) Cost (not cheap but relatively inexpensive) and cancellation policy (my credit card was only charged the night before I arrived, and then for just 1 night (of 4)

Having frequently and happily stayed at Motel 6, I do not demand much from a hotel.

Beyond a good location and sense of safety, the room must have a decent bed, shower and toilet. Even in the U.S., the TV and other amenities are largely immaterial.

I don't know if I'll post a review on or TripAdvisor, and wouldn't suggest this is a @@@@@ hotel in the vein of Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton or the grand Copacabana Palace Hotel just steps away (not that I've ever stayed at such).

But beyond the room being perfectly satisfying and location being terrific, the staff was consistently superb--even if the English skills of a couple front-desk clerks weren't great--the free breakfast buffet was excellent and the rooftop terrace with a swimming pool was nice and offered great views.

So in my view, the Mirasol Copacabana Hotel deserves @@@@@. Though I'll still be here a few more hours.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Exploring Centro, Assessing Rio

My guess is that most who know me well enough to be reading this travel blog are aware of that I lived in California during the first three years of the 1990s.

I mention this from Rio because although I am having a good time and have had zero problems, I'm reminded of two things I used to say about living in Los Angeles.

One is that I enjoyed having the experience of living in L.A. more than I consistently experienced enjoyment while living in L.A.

The other was that most of the things man had nothing or little to do with--the weather, the mountains, the beaches, etc.--were fantastic, but much else was rather middling, mundane and/or mediocre at best, excepting a number of good friends I made and still cherish.

Today, Saturday, having knocked off the most quintessential Rio sights in my first two days--Sugar Loaf mountain, the Christ the Redeemer statue atop Corcovado mountain, Tijuca National Forest and walks along Copacabana and Ipanema beaches--I ventured to Centro, Rio's downtown area.

Although I had noted that a couple of my guidebooks suggested Centro be avoided on weekends as it is pretty deserted, the folks at the hotel's reception desk assured me I needn't worry.

I was actually looking forward to taking the subway--i.e. Metro--as it is something I find unifying among many of the world's great cities. Whether in Chicago, New York, London, Paris, Prague, St. Petersburg, etc., etc., I have found a comforting commonality in how the people get around.

I easily got to the Centro area via Metro and after a bit of confusion, found my way to the Colombo Cafe.

staple of Rio since the early 20th century, the Confeitaria Colombo is ornately appointed and feels like a Viennese café, perhaps the Demel, where I ate Sacher torte last summer.

I got to the Colombo around 9:30am and found it rather full; in fact , though Centro didn't feel workday crowded, neither did it feel desolate.

I partook of a breakfast buffet, which in truth wasn't much better than the free one at my hotel, but I enjoyed the experience.

While always warily trying to ensure me and my Digital Rebel weren't being eyeballed, I made my way to the relatively modern Metropolitan Cathedral, the Lapa Arches, the National Library and the Teatro Municipal, where I took a tour and was reminded of similarly stately opera houses in Madrid, Prague, Vienna and Budapest.

From there I went into the art museum across the street, whose collection seems to be comprised entirely of Brazilian artists. Entry was free and there were some works that caught my eye, and in the more modern galleries was interesting to note how (to me) unknown Brazilian painters had interpreted famed tropes of Abstract Expression.

Starting to feel leg weary I shlepped to the Paco Imperial, which isn't all that regal and though open didn't allow much access.

I took a cab back to the hotel, asking to stop for some photos at the Selaron Staircase, a funky collection of steps essentially created by a single artist who died last year.

I was back at the hotel by 3:30pm and took another afternoon nap. One place I had in mind for dinner--a much less pricy and fancy churrascaria called Carretao (at Lido)--happened to be recommended by a front desk clerk, so I opted to check it out.

It was disappointing, both in the quality of the meats and the service. Though about one-third the price of Marius Degustare, where I ate on Thursday night, it wasn't even one-third as good.

It was my way back from there--amidst one of the most touristy parts of Rio, yet one where I cannot find a sunglasses shop as my prescription set broke--that I started to think about how good a tourist city, or perhaps not, Rio is.

Mildly chagrined to be back in my hotel room at 7:30 on a Saturday night, I started to write this. But I then determined I should go out and find a Caipirinha--a famed local drink--so I started wandering the streets of Copacabana.

Off the beach it was interesting to note locals at outdoor bars watching soccer games, but I felt considerably more comfortable along the beachfront promenade, where I had a Caipirinha--nothing to write home about even though I am--and also found a delectable churro from a cart.

Tomorrow I am going to a 4pm soccer game at the famed Maracana stadium as part of a group tour. I had also booked an earlier Favela tour, but it was rescheduled and would've conflicted with the pick up time for the football game.

I imagine it would have been insightful but it seems somewhat strange to take guided tours to see how poor people live.

It dawned on me that when I think about having been to, say, Barcelona or Copenhagen, I don't have any remembrance of how much time I spent sightseeing each day, how comfortable I felt wandering around or whether my evenings were rather spartan. I just remember the great things I saw, and have lots of photographs I can peruse forever.

So I'm not saying Río de Janeiro isn't a great tourist city. As I have traveled most places on my own, and don't even drink much, anywhere other than theater meccas of New York and London has likely left me wanting for more to do at night. 

Yet while I am happy to be here and have not ever felt unsafe--though I haven't seen the type of police presence I anticipated given the upcoming World Cup and 2016 Olympics--between not being sure where I can safely explore, and what seems like a large number of the buildings graffitied or in some state of disrepair, I can't say I've consistently felt the ebullience I always do in New York, London or experienced last summer in Krakow.

I've been enjoying reading a book on my iPhone--see Sunday's Pithy Philosophy on maybe I'll just hang out by the hotel pool, read a bit, go to the soccer game and then get ready for Buenos Aires.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Samba Chanted Evening

Following up on my earlier post--which covered most of Friday's activities--tonight I went to an establishment called Plataforma.

I went on a local tour bus that was arranged through my hotel but I really didn't interact with anyone except the tour leader, but I don't think anyone else was North American or even British.

Plataforma is known for having what is essentially called a Samba show, but I was forewarned by TripAdvisor reviews that it was more a folklore dance show.

Within the context of what it was--an evenings entertainment featuring music and dancing native to Brazil--I sufficiently enjoyed it.

Not so unlike the Irish-themed Heartbeat of Home, the production featured incredibly sculpted and talented men and women doing dances in a variety of styles and costumes, including those representative of ones worn during Carnaval.

it didn't match the production values of a Las Vegas show, but was a bit more appealing because of this. Some of the numbers were better than others but most were rather impressive.

Before the show I had gone to a Bob's Burgers near my hotel. Bob's is a chain akin to McDonald's but I don't know where it originated.

The service was a bit slow for fast food, but the Gran Picanha sandwich and combo I got was satisfactory if not quite sensational.

Even better was the Dulce de Leche churro I got from a nearby cart.

Tomorrow I'm planning to see some sites in the Centro (downtown) area. Supposedly it's a bit desolate on weekends; hopefully no more so in Chicago's Loop.

Jesus Maximus, Cab Confusion & Conciliation, A Walk Along the Beach

I am writing this--or more specifically reciting this--at around 6:15 pm. 

But this doesn't mean I'm about to turn in for the evening. In fact, I just took another afternoon siesta and have now signed up to a attend a 10 pm Samba Show at a place called Plataforma.

It is supposed to be famous, but many terrible TripAdvisor reviews made me wonder if I should bother, but it's not as if I have anything else to do tonight and going on a tour the picks me up might allow me to interact with other tourists.

I started my day doing just that, as in discovering that the hotel's rooftop pool area is really nice--I actually made use of my swimsuit, for a few wading moments--another guy with the same idea was from Michigan although he now lives near London.

I was planning to go up to the Christ the Redeemer statue--which you could see well from the pool area until I went up again with a camera and it was covered by clouds--and being uncertain of a few options I had read about forgetting there, the guy from Michigan advised me to take a taxi to the Corcovado train station.

But he also told me he and his girlfriend had to wait over five hours for an open train. I tried to see if I could pre-book a train time on my iPhone (back in the room with Wi-Fi) but there was no {ENTER} link that I could find.

it was only about 8:30 when I asked a bellhop to hale me a cab to go to the Corcovado train station. He found me a waiting driver, Orlando, who told me he could drive me to the train station or all the way up to Jesus which would cost less than taking the train.

Orlando only spoke Portuguese and Spanish and didn't understand any English. So while communication was a bit challenging, I believe he openly told me that for him to wait and take me down the mountain would cost quite a bit more, but there wasn't going to be a Taxi queue as I expected.

I let him take me up the mountain, although an official shuttle van and then an elevator required to reach the giant Jesus in the sky. 

Christo the Redeemer lacked any sense of spirituality for me, but from a landmark and photography standpoint--of the statue and of Rio from the statue base--it was pretty cool. And although it might have made for better pictures if there were absolutely no clouds, I actually liked standing there as the clouds rose above me.

Through a guy who understood Portuguese and English slightly better than Orlando, I agreed that I would pay--a good sum--for him to wait for me (for an hour) then drive me through the Tijuca rain forest to see a famous waterfall and take photos from something called the Chinese Overlook. He would the take me to the Jardim Botanico, where I would then be on my own.

I saw a whole lot more of the huge Tijuca National Forest than I ever would have trying to walk any of it, and took a bunch of pictures out the cab window.

But I wound up at the entrance to the Jardim Botanico without having seen the waterfall or Chinese Overlook. Orlando having to stop for directions a couple times may have been a clue he was unsure where these were.

In the scheme of things it probably didn't matter that much, but having seen enough trees in the forest I didn't feel a need to see the Botanic Garden as much as wanting to see the waterfall. Though Orlando couldn't specifically understand the confusion I expressed, he found a nearby interpreter and I learned that we had driven by the Chinese Outlook and hadn't stopped and didn't find the waterfall.

I said, "Well that's what I was paying him to take me to." So without bothering to go into the garden, I excepted Orlando's offer to take me to the waterfall.

It turned out to be not that much of a waterfall, at least not that you could see without hiking about 15 minutes on a rather treacherous path--though a sign labeled it easy.

Orlando actually started to leave me up the path but decided it was too dangerous to be worth the effort. And he was quite helpful in helping me get down safely.

Noting this, and that he had been driving me quite a ways over the course of almost 4 hours, I was able to convey that I wanted to go to the Leblon area (near Ipanema Beach) and would buy him, and of course me, lunch for his efforts. 

We ate what work essentially crepes--mine with strawberries and Nutella--a place called Bibi. 

I paid him our original agreed-upon fare and said I was intending to walk along Ipanema Beach and then Copacabana Beach to reach my hotel.

He expressed that this was rather far, and turned out to be right--at least for a fat ass like me on an 80 something degree day.

The stroll along Ipanema was terrific; I didn't really get close enough to see beach bodies but loved watching guys playing volleyball using only their feet and heads. A rather fun merging of  "football" and volleyball.

But rather then walk to and along Copacabana which would've involved another couple miles to see similar sites as on Ipanema and which I saw yesterday, I opted at that point for a cab back to the hotel.

Took a good nap, alerted the front desk I was in for the Samba show we had discussed--i'll get picked up at 9:00--and wrote this.

From the Trip Advisor reviews, I suspect the Plataforma show may not be all that spectacular, but what the heck?

I'm now off to try Bob's Burgers nearby; it seems to be a chain--perhaps Americanized--but it'll be new to me.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Sugar Loafing Around and Chowing Down Make for a Rio Enjoyable First Day

I realize this is a Catch-22.

I wanted to visit Rio de Janeiro--and am truly happy to be here--because I wanted to experience somewhere distinctly different, in both continent and culture, than the European cities I have visited.

But whereas in those cities I would typically exhaust myself to the bone trying to get to every museum, church, palace and landmark worth seeing, in Rio--despite some similar sites I hope to get to on Saturday--the prime tourist draws seem to be the beaches, striking mountains and a rain forest within the city, a vibrant nightlife scene and a huge statue of Jesus way up atop a mountain.

For reasons due to preference, physicality and being here alone, I don't intend to swim nor layout on the beach, I won't do much hiking and I'm not going to hit the clubs. And though Christo the Redeemer atop Corcovado is an impressive statue, well heck, I'm Jewish.

So today after walking along a stretch of Copacabana Beach--my hotel is a block and a half away--and taking the cable car to the top of Urca and Sugar Loaf mountains and spending a little time on a nearby beach, by 3:30 I was at a loss for a next thing to do.

So despite having already taken a bit of a nap after checking into my hotel room around 10, I took a cab back to my hotel--Rio does have a subway system,  but there are no stops near Sugar Loaf nor Corcovado for that matter--before heading out to dinner. 

This doesn't mean I'll have nothing to do in the three days ahead. Tomorrow I plan to go up to see Christo, see a small part of the rain forest, go to the Botanic Garden and visit the Ipanema and Leblon beach areas.

Saturday I intend to go to Centro for a classic cafe, historical sites, an art museum and a church or two.

Sunday I hope to catch a tour to a Favela--i.e. slum--and another to a football (i.e. soccer) game at the famed Maracana stadium.

But none of the days are likely to be as hectic as when I've been in London, Paris, Vienna, etc.

Yet this isn't a complaint; just an observation.

To begin with, after the brutal Chicago winter and even the bitterly cold day yesterday in New York, being somewhere warm is just wonderful. I make kvetch about it being too warm in the days ahead, but today it was about 81° and just about perfect.

Given the almost hour-long cab ride from the airport--with Chicago-like traffic jams--on which I saw numerous favelas running up hillsides and many buildings more downtrodden than shiny and new, it was apparent just how sprawling a city Rio is, and in full perhaps intimidating.

But in walking along Copacabana--both during the day and in the evening on my way to and from dinner--I never had any sense of concern or trepidation.

While I won't make much personal use of the beach--I brought a pair of swim trunks and would be happy to put more than my feet into the water as I did today, I wouldn't know what to do with my wallet, phone, camera or even just sandals--and Copacabana was sparsely populated on an initially a bit cloudy Thursday afternoon, it still made for some some spectacular scenery (I'm speaking strictly of nature here).

And with the vistas provided by Urca and Sugar Loaf, the beaches, water, mountains etc. were just breathtaking.

I got a lot of great photos and will put some quick ones up on Flickr.

For dinner I went to a place that I had read about called Marius Degustare. It is essentially a Brazilian steakhouse--i.e. a churrascaria, where you are served various cuts of meat--but also features cuts of seafood.

Everything I had including cuts of fillet mignon, ribeye, ribs, rock lobster shrimp of various types and more was really delicious. And the decor might be among the funkiest I've seen anywhere.

It's a bit pricey--even more so than Fogo de Chao in Chicago, which also has a location here--and they seem to get a bit pokey in serving me before I had had my fill, but it was a good experience--and ultimately filling meal.

I enjoyed walking the mile back to my hotel along the beach, noting several lighted volleyball games going on in the darkness. (Brazil doesn't seem to observe daylight savings time.)

But I am writing this from bed and likely soon to turn the lights off even if I am in Rio de Janeiro and it's only 10.

Relatively speaking, I might not wind up doing all that much here, but it seems there may be few places I would more enjoy not doing it.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A Tragically Tasteful Memorial

Greetings from... JFK Airport.

I am writing this as I have dinner before my 9:30pm flight to Rio.

As scheduled, I flew into Newark this morning. It was a really smooth flight until the end when high winds in the New York area caused the plane to wobble considerably upon descent. But the pilot stuck the landing and I offered my compliments and appreciation upon deplaning.

I had prepaid for an NYC Airporter bus that I thought would take me direct from Newark to JFK. But in finding the right bus I learned that one bus would take me to the Port Authority bus terminal in Manhattan, from where another one would take me JFK (as part of the same fee).

Upon the first bus I tried to ascertain if there was somewhere at Port Authority or nearby that I could leave my suitcase for the afternoon, so I could wander around Manhattan--and/or catch a Broadway matinee--before continuing on to JFK.

No such luck.

But even after getting to JFK around 2:30 and checking my bag, I decided to take the AirTrain + subway back to lower Manhattan to see the 9/11 Memorial.

It was bitterly cold outside but I'm glad I made the effort. 

Due primarily to where I exited the subway at Fulton Street, I first explore St. Paul's Church, a historic 18th century structure that miraculously survived 9/11 intact and played a key role in supporting rescue efforts.

I took several pictures of the new--but as yet not open to the public--Freedom Tower. 

And though the 9/11 Memorial Museum isn't slated to open until late May, the memorial itself--essentially the footprints of the two towers turned into subtly cascading fountains with names of the victims engraved on the surrounding ledges--is open and free. (My online reservation incurred a $2 surcharge, but likely saved me at least a half-hour of waiting, though getting through security--akin to an airport's--took a good while.)

Obviously, anyone old enough to remember the horrible events of that September morning will never forget them. 

I did not know anyone who was killed or hurt on--or directly survived--9/11, nor anyone who knew someone who had. So millions of people were much more acutely affected than I, including anyone who had seen what took place in person.

But when the towers fell, I clearly remembered going into them and to the observation deck just a few years before, and the preceding June I had taken a sightseeing boat tour that allowed me to take many great pictures of the World Trade Center. 

Oddly, I had also visited Washington, DC and Pittsburgh in the months prior to 9/11, so all of the tragedy sites really registered with me.

I also remember how the next time I was in New York--but truly on all subsequent trips there--how staggering it was not to see the towers where they once stood.

So despite a really cold day--and I assure you I wasn't dressed for Rio--I'm glad I was able to spend some time at the memorial. And to feel a bit of personal discomfort was probably appropriate.

Because of the high winds, the North Tower basin had its fountains turned off, which actually made it even more serene and somber.

Things will continue to evolve near the memorial site for months and years to come, opening of the museum, blossoming of trees and ongoing work on a nearby transportation hub.

But as it stands, the 9/11 Memorial seems beautifully low key and quite moving in its simplicity.

I can't wait to explore Rio and Buenos Aires, but it's likely I won't see anywhere on this trip that affects me more.

But the next time I'm outside, it should be about 80°--and that's a good thing.

I have put a few pictures up on

That'll do it for now; after a nice dinner and the chance to charge my phone, I've got a plane to catch.