I’d already been to Brazil twice since November, with Rio and Iguazu in one trip, and Bahia, Sao Paulo, and Brasilia in another. But American had a really cheap, sub-$500 fare from DCA to Rio, and a friend was going down for a weekend. I hadn’t done the Rio nightlife on my last trip, with only two nights in the city, and the weather had been grey and cloudy, so I thought this would provide a second opportunity to do that stuff. Also, after eighteen months of solo travel, the idea of traveling with someone else was nice. My friend was only going for two nights though, which struck me as insufficient (I’m getting old), so I went down a night early. The routing would be a lot more straightforward than my last trip to Rio, and I’d be flying DCA-JFK-GIG on the outbound, and GIG-MIA-DCA on the inbound.
My trip down to Rio was pretty uneventful. It started with a stay at a crowded Admirals Club at DCA, where I worked a bit, and a 737 from DCA to JFK. The one thing of note was an honor guard meeting an arriving plane at one of the gates at DCA. I’d never seen an honor guard meeting a plane inside a terminal before, and assume it was to greet the family of a fallen servicemember. The leader of the group welcomed about a half dozen passengers off the plane, and none looked super sad, but obviously I have no idea.
Despite the really long upgrade list, the middle seat in Main Cabin Extra stayed open, so it wasn’t a big deal not to be upfront for the short flight up. The weather was pretty bad, so the Captain asked the crew not to do a service, and I slept for most of the short flight. I had a nearly three hour layover at JFK, so I headed to the Concourse C Admirals Club; though not near my gate for the next flight, the Concourse B Club is currently under construction. I worked some more, though it was hard because there is little tabletop seating with power outlets. I had a few glasses of cheap wine and some soup while I worked, and headed to the gate just as boarding was beginning.
The flight from JFK to GIG was on a retrofitted 777. Upon boarding, it was insane to see how empty the business cabin was – I’d say one-quarter full or less – consistent with my previous observations that AA just has way too much capacity to Brazil. The rear of the plane was fuller, but hardly full, with nearly all of the middle seats empty in Main Cabin Extra. Indeed, I had a row to myself until someone moved herself to the aisle of rather than be in the middle of the middle section.
The cabin was pretty comfortable, with in-seat power and USB ports at each seat, along with personal IFE. Not surprisingly, given the length of the flight, it was a very senior, efficient crew. Meals were distributed within an hour of takeoff, and I watched “Carol” as I ate and also did some work. The meal was the standard blah chicken and rice, with a small iceberg salad and brownie, and some red wine. Trays were cleared 90 minutes into flight, and I turned in to sleep.
I slept pretty well, but for a need to pee I did not act upon out of a desire not to disturb my row mate, and the insanely disgusting sounds of the Chinese man behind me clearing his throat and spitting the contents into something. About 45 minutes prior to landing, there was a rushed breakfast service, consisting of a yogurt and a muffin top. And then we were on the ground.
There was no real wait at Brazilian immigration. I had planned to take the bus into the city, since I didn’t think my hotel room would be ready and there was no real rush. There is a bunch of construction at the terminal, though, and all the signs to the bus led in circles. As I was pretty exhausted, I gave up and took a cab, which, even with the worse exchange rate than the last time I was in Brazil, was only about $20. It was rush hour, and Galeao is on the opposite side of the city from Ipanema, where I was staying the first two nights, and the ride took over an hour. Thankfully, my Brazilian sim card from my last trip still had credits on it, so I was able to catch up on emails and such.
I had stayed at the Caesar Park by Sofitel on my last trip to Rio, and there were actually some problems — namely, loud construction that went on into the early evening. The hotel had offered me a massage to make up for it, but they didn’t offer it until my last night, and the spa would not reopen until after I needed to leave for the airport the next day. Initially I had booked a much cheaper hotel in Ipanema, but I decided that the guaranteed gym and beach, plus pretty nice room of the Caesar Park was worth the extra money – although still not cheap, with a prepaid rate of about $175 a night. I figured between my Le Club elite status, and an email in advance flagging my repeat visit and the problems of my last stay, I’d be fine.
I arrived at the hotel between 9:30 and 10:00am, and went right to reception. Even if I’m early, my practice has always been to head to the desk and see if I can check in. If not, they tell me so and I leave bags and come back. What happened here, though, was a bit of a scam. First, the clerk asked if I was checking in. I said yes, and she said she needed to finish up some check out paperwork first and asked me to take a seat. Okay, fine. She then called me back to the desk, and did all of the standard check in things – copying my passport, confirming my stay and rate and having me initial, and swiping my card for incidentals. Only after all that, she said, “Oh, and for early check-in we charge half the daily rate.”
Now, it’s one thing to charge for early check-in. But it certainly should have been told to me prior to this point, after I first waited for her, and then went through the whole rigmarole. And it worked, because I was tired and fed up, and just said fine. She then said she had to go in the back and see if there was a room available. Of course she came back, and the scam continued. “Well, it would be 300 reais for the room you booked, because you booked the cheapest room. But if you wanted to upgrade to the next room category, I could waive the early check-in fee.” “How much is the upgrade? 200 reais per night.” In retrospect, I should have just stuck with the 300 reais total, but it seemed like the upgrade for 100 reais– about $35 – was worth the extra money. This all seemed a bit ridiculous for a Le Club Elite member, especially one who had had a bad experience on his last day and wrote in to make sure he had a better stay, but whatever it was done.
The room was on a low floor, and though she made a big deal of how it was a “side ocean view”, the view was worse than the view in the base room I had stayed in the last time. The layout was more normal and the room was a bit bigger, but it was definitely not worth 200 reais more a night – a 30% price increase – from the base room, and I felt a bit swindled and taken advantage of in my sleepy post-redeye state.
In my room, the obvious task was to nap and shower. Of course, since I have horrible Rio weather juju, it was raining, so there went the idea of a beach day. The last time I had stayed at the Caesar Park, I was pretty flustered and couldn’t really find anything in Ipanema itself. For example, I hadn’t been able to find coffee in the morning anywhere but at McDonald’s. This time, I was much more able to find coffee shops, restaurants, and shops that gave a flavor of Ipanema beyond the beach.
I had a book and a fair amount of work to do, so I had a basic lunch of a panini at a pretty busy restaurant called Balada Mix, and then headed to the new Ipanema Starbucks, which was packed – mostly with American and European ex-pats and Europeans. I wound down the grey day with a cappuccino and a book at La Cafeina, a small local chain bakery that had been recommended, but was depressing and smelly in the rainy mid-afternoon, and also managed to screw up my pastry order and give me banana cake even though I pointed to the apple one and the woman said “Apple?”
I took another short nap, and prepped for the gym, before realizing I hadn’t gotten my voucher for a welcome drink, which, other than “VIP Treatment”, is pretty much the only explicit benefit of Le Club Silver Status. So I went down to the front desk and was given the voucher as soon as I asked, and then headed to the rooftop gym, which actually had gotten new equipment since my November visit.
When I came back, there was a note stuck in the key slot saying that they had come to deliver an amenity, but my do not disturb sign was up. That struck me as odd, since the do not disturb sign was *not* up, but I figured maybe I didn’t see the note when I left for the gym. I called the number provided and the agent seemed very confused, and said “but your key card is working?” I thought that was odd, but said yes. A few minutes later, a housekeeping staff member arrived at the room, not to deliver the amenity, but to do a full turndown service. I went to the lobby to wait and make a phone call, and about 15 minutes later (after one trip back up to the 11th floor in vain), he was done. Except then my key card didn’t work.
I went back down to the lobby, and the desk agent then explained that someone had been cleaning the room but must have noticed that there was a valuable item left out, and if that happens, they are supposed to stop cleaning and then lock the room and security has to reopen it. Putting this altogether, I realized (1) I had left my wallet in the room when I went to the gym, (2) they must have come to service the room then and seen the wallet; (3) they left the note about the do not disturb sign but I apparently re-entered my room before they could disable entry, which is why the phone agent asked me about it. So I had to wait for security to meet me outside the room and let me in. Odd but not more than a minor inconvenience.
The turndown service was pretty nice – a handwritten note from the GM welcoming me back to the property with a box of truffles, in addition to the standard small chocolates on the pillow and 2 bottles of water (which should have been in the room when I checked in).
I asked the concierge if he thought I needed dinner reservations for the Thursday night and he said no, so I took a leisurely evening, reading at the rooftop bar with my welcome caipirinha, before heading over to Viasete, a popular steakhouse-type restaurant in Ipanema. The concierge had given me a coupon for a welcome drink, but they just took a few dollars off my bill, which I didn’t complain about. I had fried calamari and flank steak, washed down with an overpriced red wine. But the atmosphere was pleasant and the service good.
Around 10:45pm, I walked back to the hotel, passing many bars where the night was just beginning, including one where a trombonist was playing “The Girl from Ipanema.” In Ipanema. How meta. Having just had come off of a ridiculous work trip to Little Rock, I had not gotten a good nights sleep in five or so days, so it was a relatively early night for me.
I had planned to wake up early and hit the gym, but I snoozed til ten. It was even rainier than the day before, so I headed to Starbucks, where I worked for a few hours and had breakfast before heading back to the hotel and grabbing a short nap. My friend had arrived that morning and was doing the same at his hotel, the new Hyatt in Barra de Tijuca. Barra is pretty far from the action, about 20 kilometers west of Ipanema. The plan was for him and a friend who was tagging along with him to meet me for lunch around 3 – except their 40 minute taxi ride took over 90 minutes. So note – a reason not to stay in Barra.
So around 4:30, we headed to La Carioca, a nice Peruvian restaurant specializing in ceviche right in Ipanema. We had some pisco cocktails, and I had a lomo saltado. From there, I dropped them back at the Caesar Park bar, had a 15 minute powernap and a workout before joining them back at the bar. There was a great American-Brazilian soul/funk band playing, and we stayed for awhile, before heading to dinner at Alessandro and Federico, an Italian/pizza restaurant in Ipanema, which was pretty good. I was wiped after that, so went to bed after reading a bit.
The next day was a little bit nicer weatherwise, but still not really beach weather. The Caesar Park, even for elite members, only gives late checkout until 1pm without charging, so I checked out and dropped my bags and headed out for the day. On my way to breakfast, I discovered the credit on my sim card had run out. A trip to the TIM store to get the card reloaded failed, so the rest of the trip was cell phone serviceless.
The last time I was in Rio I didn’t make it to Pao de Acucar, or Sugarloaf Mountain, a mountain at the mouth of Guanabara Bay, jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean. It’s one of the two peaks tourists tend to visit, along with Corcovado and its famous Christ the Redeemer statue, which I did hit up last time. The cable cars up leave from Praia Vermelha. For some reason, though, my taxi took me to the completely wrong area of the Urca neighborhood, dropping me off at a tiny beach on the wrong side of the mountain. Since I had no phone service, I couldn’t quite figure out where to go, and after 20 minutes walking in circles trying to follow files, I hailed a second taxi that took me where I needed to be.
The day was getting slightly more overcast, but I’m still glad I went, and I found it a lot more enjoyable than Corcovado. There’s a lot more space, including places to sit and just take in the view (as well as a lot of shopping). The first cable car takes you to the smaller peak, Morro da Urca, where there’s a fancy restaurant. The second car takes you to Pao de Acucar itself, which not only had great views of both downtown and Copacabana, and also has a nature preserve area.
After an hour or so on the peaks, I took a taxi back to the Caesar Park, picked up my luggage, and Ubered over to the Sheraton, where I was ending my stay. Part 2 will pick up there.