We spent February 27 in Ilheus, a city of about 225,000 with many beaches lining beautiful blue waters. The city was founded in 1534. In the early 20th century this area was known as the Cocoa Coast & Ilheus was one of the wealthiest cities in Brazil. But the area’s cocoa plantations were devastated by a parasite in 1989 and today tourism is their economic mainstay. Many Brazilians in the area come here for the beaches. But cocoa is still grown here in less abundance than before and a lot of chocolate is sold by tourism vendors in town.
No one who has read this blog will be surprised that we did not go to the beach for the day. Instead, never having been here before, we boarded the HAL shuttle that took us into the city and dropped us off in front of the Catedral Sao Sebastiao (Cathedral of St Sebastian), seat of the Roman Catholic diocese that was begun in 1931 and dedicated in 1967. An imposing edifice with four pointed towers and two domes, it could be seen from the ship as well as around the downtown area.
In front of the cathedral was a guy wearing an outsize straw sombrero; we aren’t sure what he was selling, if anything, but it was pretty amusing. We walked up the street to the house of Jorge Amado, built in 1926, now a museum. Amado was Brazil’s top novelist, publishing 21 of them that were translated into 49 languages. Several became popular films, notably Dona FLor and her Two Husbands and Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon. The latter is set in Ilheus, where one of the principal characters owns the Bar Vesuvio (Vesuvius Bar), built in the 1920’s, which we passed on the way to Amado’s house. Amado died in 2001.
The Ilheus Municipal Theater was built in 1932 and was a venue for a variety of performances, musical as well as theatrical. It was once called the “Cine Teatro Ilheus,” which suggests that movies were also shown here. Inside the entrance is an interesting mural and we were able to go up the stairs to see the performance space.
The Palacio Paranagua was opened in 1907 to serve as the city hall, which it still does. It is the leading example of the opulent architecture of the days of the Cocoa barons. The building was built on the site of the ruins of a Jesuit school, but when the town was originally founded this hill was used by the indigenous people as a cemetery. We were able to go inside but there wasn’t much to see. The windows on the upper floor, however, gave a nice view of the city looking back along the way we had come, all the way to the cathedral.
We walked on, passing among other things a long stone wall covered in wall art & a telephone pole with a bewildering tangle of wire. It took a while to find it, but we were finally able to visit the Igreja Matriz de Sao Jorge dos Ilheus. This small church is one of the oldest buildings in the city, built either in the 16th or 17th century, depending on your source. When we visited there was no going inside as it appeared that the entire interior of the church was being completely renovated. Piles of sand and rock were outside and the inside was filled with construction wood.
Our next objective was, as usual, the public library. The building was completed in 1915 and originally served as a school. The school’s log is built into the top of the building over the main entrance. In 2002 it was converted into a library and archive. We have read that it also briefly housed the municipal government while the Palacio Paranagua was being renovated. It is a nice building and we went inside where there was a two story courtyard, but we didn’t get to see where they keep the books.
After this we walked back into town toward the shuttle bus stop by the cathedral. On the way we stopped at the Mercado de Artesanato (Artisan Market), but we were disappointed at the high prices and lack of anything we really wanted. At an intersection on the way we saw a neighborhood of colorful houses on the side of a hill and there were several mosaic sidewalks. We also repassed several things we had seen earlier. As we waited for the shuttle we saw the wide and inviting beach nearby and some flowers and a colorful bird. Finally, as we walked to the ship we passed some bushes with striking pink flowers. That was the end for this small city, pleasant enough to stroll around but nothing really show stopping to see.
We spent our second day in Rio, February 25, exploring the city on foot along with our friends Robert and Bill. Because our ship was docked much further down to pier than last time we were here our GPS app took us down some streets with which we were not previously familiar. We crossed some tram tracks and also a mosaic sidewalk with a pattern similar to the one at Ipanema beach. This probably wasn’t the safest route (although we had no trouble). At one point we were waiting to cross the street and Robert was consulting a map with his small camera hanging from his wrist when a local woman who spoke no English approached and indicated urgently with gestures that he should keep his camera in his pocket or in his hand at all times.
Walking down a street we think is Rua dos Passos we happened upon a church set right up to the sidewalk called Igreja do Santissimo Sacramento da Antiga Se (Church of the Blessed Sacrament of the Old See). This congregation has its roots in the 16th century and the current church was built from 1819 to 1859, when it was consecrated. The interior is a very large and airy space with walls covered in carving and other art. We stepped inside but couldn’t explore the church because the floors had just been mopped. The outside, however, was very sad because the walls and even the sculptures set into the facade were covered with very ugly graffiti. Very little respect for what would otherwise be a beautiful landmark on an otherwise nondescript street. The sidewalk in front of the church was covered in black, white & red mosaic.
Another example of what you may see walking off the beaten path, we came upon the Catedral Presbiteriana do Rio (Presbyterian Cathedral of Rio). This is somewhat unusual in what is a mostly Catholic country and the building was unlike most of the large churches we saw in Brazil in that it was built in a gothic style and the interior is relatively plain and all white. The oldest Presbyterian church in Brazil, it was opened in 1874 and has been renovated several times since, most extensively in 1925. There is a large garden in front that has a sculptural depiction of a pastor preaching to his flock.
Our first objective today was the Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Sebastian of Rio de Janeiro. Opened in 1979, it is in a very modern style inspired by the Mayan pyramids in Mexico and does not look like any other church you may have seen. It is quite massive – almost 350 feet in diameter and 250 feet tall – and the inside is all one huge room. The interior is lighted by a skylight in the shape of a cross and four gigantic stained glass windows that stretch from floor to ceiling. There is a pipe organ behind the pulpit and a gold cross hanging over it that looks like it is floating in the air. Nearby, but not actually attached to the cathedral, is a large tower topped by a cross that we think has either bells or speakers on each level. When looking at it from the right direction you can see Cristo Redentor far behind it on its hill.
On our last visit in 2012 many of the downtown buildings were being renovated for the upcoming World Cup and Olympics to be held in Rio, and could not be entered. That included the national library and Mary was particularly interested in seeing the reputedly impressive interior. So we walked over to Cinelandia quare to visit it, along with the other important buildings there. We walked through a tunnel under a highway that had some intriguing wall art and another that had some homeless people asleep under the graffiti. At one point we decided we were headed in the wrong direction & had to turn around, but Bill is a fast walker and he was almost a block ahead of us and never noticed that we were not with him. Robert had to run all that way, in suffocating heat and humidity, just to let him know we were going a different way. He was not happy.
We arrived eventually at Cinelandia square to visit the Biblioteca Nacional do Brasil. While the library’s roots date back to 1810 when the Portuguese national library was transferred to Rio, the current building opened in 1910. This is the largest library in South America and the seventh largest in the world with some 9 million items in its collection. It supposed to be quite a sight inside, but we have no pictures of the library, inside or out, to show you. Why, you ask? Because I just found out, as I was writing this paragraph, that the building we thought was the library was actually the Camara Municipal do Rio de Janeiro! It currently houses the city council and the National Library is about a block away. The Camara building was closed when we were there because of the construction of tents for Carnaval celebrations and we felt bad because we thought we had been denied entry to the library on two visits seven years apart. But who knows whether we could have visited inside the library if we had actually found it? Anyway the Camara Municipal was itself a beautiful building.
Across the street is the striking Teatro Municipal with its partially gilded roof. Opened in 1909, this is largely a venue for ballet and classical music, although in the past it has presented opera as well. Its architectural design was inspired by the Paris Opera. Sadly, this building also was not open the day we visited, so we were unable to see the reputedly beautiful interior.
This plaza had mosaic sidewalks in several different patterns
Well, by this time we had done quite a bit of walking on what we may have mentioned was a particularly hot and humid day (big contrast to Antarctica just a few weeks earlier). If we had known the library was just down the street we surely would have gone there. But we didn’t know, so we hailed a cab back to the port and reboarded the ship. When we reached the port Bill & Rick went back to the ship while Mary & Robert perused the many vendor kiosks set up outside the entry to the pier. While looking at a vendor’s wares Robert spotted a guy in the process of stealing jewelry from the vendor’s table. He called out & the guy dropped what he had taken and ran. There were no police around so he got away but Robert was a hero to the vendors nonetheless.
Before we left there was a sail away party by the pool on the lido deck. The band that usually played in the Ocean bar – easily the best Ocean bar band we have seen – played on deck for the party. And of course the ship penguins participated, wearing their Carnaval beads.
We saw in the last episode how beautiful the sunrise sail in to Rio was. We were sailing away just before sunset, retracing pretty much the same route, so this gives a different perspective on the scene. It was gray & a little foggy when we sailed away and birds were again circling overhead.
As we sailed out into the bay we passed the long bridge across the bay, in front of which is an island with a marina, then a group of four tugboats (perhaps standing ready in case we needed help?). We had a last look at the favela by the port and we passed the old customs house.
We passed the small airport again and saw a plane just passing Corcovado mountain after takeoff. We also passed what looked like an offshore oil derrick as we sailed toward Sugar Loaf mountain.
We approached Sugar Loaf as the sun was setting, and could see Cristo Redentor all lit up to stand out in the dark.
We sailed around Sugar Loaf and headed out into the Atlantic. We had a view of the back of Cristo Redentor with Copacabana and Atlantic Avenue stretching out beneath it. And there was one last gasp from the setting sun. Goodbye to Rio!
We reached Rio de Janeiro early on the morning of February 24. When the Portuguese first visited this area in January, 1502, they thought that Guanabara Bay was a wide river which they named the January River (Rio de Janeiro). The first settlement here was in 1565.
Sailing into Rio is (in our opinion) one of the great sail-ins in the world and well worth arising before dawn to see, as we discovered on our first visit here in 2012:
So we did so, arriving on deck just as we reached Sugarloaf Mountain, a 1200 foot peak rising dramatically from the water. Beyond it is Corcovado mountain, topped by the 125 foot tall Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) statue, which is lighted at night. This area is particularly dramatic in the warm and slanting (from left in most of these pictures) early morning sun.
We sailed past a fort built by the water to defend the bay. We think this is Fortaleza de Sao Joao (Fort of St John), which was first built in the 16th century.
While a large international airport is located on the north side of the city, there is a small airport right on the water limited to domestic flights, mostly to and from Sao Paulo. First built in the 1930’s, Santos Dumont Airport was named for Alberto Santos Dumont who Brazilians insist conducted the first heavier than air flight in 1906. They dismiss the Wright Brothers (Rick’s homeboys) who are recognized by the rest of the world for their flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903 because their plane flew from a rail on the ground rather than flat on the ground itself. Go figure. Anyway, we could see planes descending past Sugar Loaf to land at this airport and also taking off; from the water it looks like it barely has enough room for such activities.
Nothing to say about them, but here are a few panoramic photos of the city in the early morning light as we sailed past toward the port.
As we neared the turn into the port we passed Ilha Fiscal, an island just off shore on which sits a fantastic green building that was once the customs house, thus the island’s name (it was originally called Rat Island). Opened in April, 1889, six months later it was the scene of a large ball with several thousand in attendance. It is now remembered as the last ball of the Empire because six days later a revolution established a republican form of government. Today it is a museum.
We sailed into the port, where three huge cruise ships were already there, two MSC and one Celebrity if we remember correctly. That meant we had to dock a bit further away to the north. We passed some ornate churches in the neighborhood (Rio is full of ornate churches). The dock is lined with long warehouse-like buildings in a reddish color, one of which was the terminal. Most of the staterooms on our side of the ship looked out on one of these buildings, but ours was luckily placed overlooking a square between two of the buildings with a huge wall painting on a building across the way. This area has been renovated in recent years and looks very nice. There were birds flying above, notably one kind with swallow tails, and from our balcony we could just see Cristo Redentor almost (but not quite) obscured by a building. On a hill behind the port is a favela, or shanty town, on which poor folks have built brick homes, some in a second or third floor above the first family’s. Many favelas have been under the control of drug lords and can be very dangerous to visit on your own, but there was a push to clean them up before the 2016 Olympics were held here and we have read that some of them may have been gentrified in recent years.
We participated in an excursion to Cidade do Samba (Samba City), a complex of warehouse looking buildings not far from the port where the best Samba schools have their quarters. There is a large favela right next to it, which we think is the same one we saw from the port and the oldest favela in the city, founded in the late 19th century by former slaves who had served in the military.
Each year during Carnaval the Samba schools compete with each other and are ranked by judges. The top schools get their choice of space at Samba City and if your ranking goes down you will probably have to move to a less desirable space. Where do they move? Dandara’s response was “who cares!” We were told that the one we visited,Grande Rio Youth Samba School, had been ranked #1 for a number of years. We walked through the warehouse space on the first floor where the floats for the upcoming 2019 Carnaval were kept, but these were secret so no pictures could be taken. Upstairs were a number of exhibits, mostly of costumes from Carnavals past, which we were free to photograph.
We were treated to a lecture about the history of Samba & Carnaval in a room with walls lined with old photos. Samba grew from the music and dance of African slaves, although there have been other influences since. It is very rhythmic, loud and energetic. And of course it features women in spectacular but revealing costume, often dancing on very high heeled platform shoes. We were told that the schools work literally year round preparing their Carnaval presentation. Dandara said that preparation for next year’s Carnaval would start on the Monday after this year’s Carnaval. Nothing is reused from year to year; all the clothing and floats are made anew. It sounds like it takes a very high level of work and dedication. After the history lesson we were led into another room where everyone (yes, everyone) was outfitted in old Carnival costumes (we didn’t get to pick out our own). Then there was a demonstration of Samba, with just two people in this small room. A good time was had by all.
Before leaving we spent some time in a lounge where Caipirinhas and munchies were served and you could buy souvenirs. The Caipirinha is Brazil’s national drink, based on a liquor made from sugarcane. They were very good & refreshing.
We drove across town to Copacabana beach. On the way we passed more favelas & the upscale residential streets of the Corcovado neighborhood.
Copacabana beach is almost 2 miles long and has a wide expanse of soft white sand. But it is famous not only for the beach but for the Portuguese style mosaic sidewalk that runs the length of the beach along Atlantic Avenue. The undulating pattern, designed to evoke ocean waves, is beautiful and mesmerizing. Made of small black and white stones, it must have taken quite a lot of work to create.
It is interesting how different the swirling pattern can look depending on the angle from which you are viewing it.
On the opposite side of Avenida Atlantica from the beach is a long row of mid-rise buildings, most housing hotels and upscale condos (we were told on our last visit that a mid-level condo in a building across from Ipanema beach had just sold for 6 million US dollars, and that was 7 years ago so the prices have undoubtedly risen substantially). One notable building there is the art deco Copacabana Palace, a luxury hotel built in 1923 when it was the only large building in the area, surrounded only by single family houses. Ten years later it was featured in the filming of Flying Down To Rio with Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers. Long considered one of the best hotels in South America, it has been a magnet for the rich and famous for decades. Notably, in 2006 the Rolling Stones stayed there and performed a free concert on the beach that we have read attracted more than a million fans.
On the day of our visit it was sunny & hot, so a lot of people were out on the beach, sitting under umbrellas, playing volleyball, walking around and buying refreshments from the many kiosks. Like all beaches in Brazil, there is never a charge to use it. Several pipes rose out of the sand that constantly pumped out fresh water. Rio’s beaches are notorious for scavengers, so we were told you should never put any of your possessions down, even when you are standing right by them, or they could be gone in an instant. So we kept our cameras in our hands and used them to excess.
Leaving the beach we drove back across town to the port. We passed more favelas and other buildings, including the Sambadromo, where the Samba schools’ performances are judged during Carnaval.
When we arrived at the port we found huge crowds of cruise ship passengers milling around and standing in very long lines to have their credentials checked so the could enter the dock area. Most of these people were headed for the other large cruise ships on the dock. We walked up and down the fence (a very long walk in the suffocating heat) looking unsuccessfully for a quicker way in. Across from the dock was some fantastic wall art, most depicting diverse ethnicities, that we enjoyed while waiting to get back in.
We finally made it back on the ship. As we arrived for dinner the ship penguins were all dressed up, apparently unaware that they would not be the ones handing out the Academy Awards that night.
Since we would be staying in Rio over night, there was a show on the ship of the local music and dance. So what was it, you ask? With Carnaval just days away, what could it be but a samba performance. First on stage were the musicians, mostly drums and other rhythm, who demonstrated their stamina by standing on stage playing nonstop for the entire show.
Then the female dancers emerged on stage. They wore a variety of flamboyant and revealing costumes and their dancing to the high energy percussive music was extremely energetic.
Some male dancers dressed in green came on stage to dance with a couple of new women, one also in green and one in black.
Here are some closer pictures of these women dancing in their Carnaval costumes.
All of the dancers were on stage for the finale.
All in all, this was an entertaining and energetic show & everyone had a good time. But we thought the Samba show we saw on Prinsendam during our 2012 was decidedly better. Perhaps it was the audience participation or just the fact that this was new to us then. That is not meant to detract from these dancers and musicians who clearly gave their all to entertain us, and entertain us they did.
So that was the end of this extremely long and rewarding first day in beautiful Rio de Janeiro. We went to bed happy in the knowledge that we still had another day to go!
We arrived at Ilhabela, just a short way up the coast from Santos, on the morning of February 23. Ilhabela is an archipelago about four miles off the coast of Brazil. Discovered for Europeans by Amerigo Vespucci in 1502, the largest island that we visited is today a beach and watersport resort that is very popular with vacationers from Sao Paulo (127 miles away) and Rio de Janeiro (210 miles away). In season it can get very crowded on weekends but we were there on Saturday and there were few visitors in evidence other than ship passengers. It is no wonder this is a popular getaway, with vast amounts of blue water and many miles of beaches.
This little town (the whole archipelago has a permanent population of about 32,000) definitely has the laid back ambience of most beach towns. It is small enough that no transportation is needed in town, although we understand that most visitors spend their time on or under the water, on the beach, or hiking the nature trails that abound on the island. The tender dropped us off on the dock right in the center of town, and on the other side of a small park is the church. The town & especially the church were decorated with long streams of flags, but we don’t know whether that is normal or perhaps it was a holiday.
The Igreja Matriz Nossa Senhora D’Ajuda (Church of Our Lady of Help) was first built at the end of the 18th & beginning of the 19th centuries by slave labor. It was significantly renovated in the 1950’s. Sitting on top of a hill, its blue and white facade dominates the town and there is a very nice view from its veranda.
At the bottom of the front stairway of the church is a large sculpture of Jesus on the cross, much larger than life. To the right of the cross is a yellow castle style building that was the home of something called the Chain and Forum. It was transformed from an earlier building in 1913 and restored in 2001; today it houses a visitor center.
We walked down to visit the public library, somewhat hidden in the Cultural Center. It was small but light and airy (maybe because hardly anyone was there) with a small patio outside a glass wall.
Next door we happened upon the small Waldemar Belisario museum. Established in 1968, the museum is devoted to local artist Belisario, who was born in 1895 and lived in Ilhabela from 1929 until his death in 1983. It was highlighted by a set of four stained glass windows, a room full of Belisario’s paintings (no photos allowed) and a room of photographs that appears to be a temporary installation. Worth seeing if you ever find yourself in this town.
That was the last of the landmarks we wanted to see so we walked around the streets of the town for a while. There were quite a few restaurants and stores, most of which were selling souvenirs and clothing of the type you would expect in a beach town. The streets were surprisingly empty, though.
After a few hours we were finished with this small town, so we walked back down to the docks. After spending a little time there looking at the water and scenery we boarded the tender and returned to the ship. Tomorrow would be a much fuller day.
We reached Santos, our first stop in Brazil, on February 22. Santos is a city of around 450,000 built mostly on an island. Founded by the Portuguese in 1546, Santos has the largest port in South America. It is also the sea gateway to Sao Paulo, the largest city in the Western Hemisphere.
We had been told we would be docking near the old part of the city within walking distance of some of the cities more popular landmarks. But when we got there it turned out we were docked in a new cruise terminal that was on the other side of the island. HAL’s only shuttle went to a shopping mall, which didn’t do anything for us. So after breakfast we took the intra-port shuttle to the terminal, where we obtained some local currency after an unsuccessful struggle with the money machines and a long wait at the money kiosk. We ran into our friends Bill & Robert at the terminal and the four of us took a taxi to the old town.
Our first stop was at the Coffee Museum. A hundred years ago Santos was thriving on the exports of Brazilian coffee to the rest of the world. The coffee exchange where this coffee was bought & sold, which now houses the museum, was built in 1922 and operated until the 1950’s. Even today Brazil is the top producer of coffee and the second largest consumer.
The center of the building is the large Trading Room, with 81 connected walnut chairs arranged in a semi-circle for the president of the exchange, his assistants and 70 coffee traders. The floor is made of inlaid marble imported from Europe, with a star of David in the center. In the ceiling, two stories above the floor, is a stained glass window by acclaimed Brazilian artist Benedicto Calixto that represents the history of the city and the country. Along the wall behind the president’s chair is a tryptic by the same artist. On the second floor the room is ringed with balconies where those purchasing and selling coffee watched the proceedings. It is quite a space.
The rest of the museum, in some other rooms on the first floor and most on the second floor, contain artifacts of the history of coffee in Brazil, including old tools, documents, photos, baskets, etc. Unfortunately, few of these have explanations in English and we do not read Portuguese. The second floor also has a large diorama reproducing the picture in the stained glass window, some other dioramas for explanation and fun, and an Information and Document Center (aka library) with some 500 books along with other documents and publications, all about coffee and some dating back to 1889.
After leaving the museum we walked down some of the streets in the neighborhood of the somewhat restored old town.
Pele was probably the all time best soccer player and still the most famous even though he retired more than 40 years ago. He began playing for the Santos team at the age of 15 and for the Brazilian national team the next year. In 2014 the Pele Museum was opened in an 1865 building called Casaroes do Valongo, which had been damaged severely by fire and completely rebuilt in the original style. The inside is a huge open space with several levels that do not reach the walls. You start at the top and walk down as Pele’s life and career unfold in front of you. There are artifacts, but what we saw was mostly enlarged photos, videos and explanatory texts, most only in Portuguese. From one window was a nice view of the side of a small mountain, probably Monte Serrat, with a neighborhood of houses on top. It would all probably be a lot more interesting if you are a soccer fan & could read Portuguese, neither of which applies to us.
Apparently the first trams in Santos were set up in 1861 and there was an electric tram system here from 1909 until 1971 with trams built in Scotland. In 2000 a new tram line through the old town from the Valongo train station (built in 1867) was inaugurated for visitors to the city using some of the original trams. We took the approximately 40 minute ride, narrated by a guide who only spoke Portuguese so we can’t tell you much about what we saw. We did ride past the city hall, however, which is in the Jose Bonifacio Palace. The tram is noisy & very slow, an interesting but far from exciting ride.
So that was enough. While not one of the best places we visited on this voyage, we had a pleasant and interesting stay here. We all piled into a taxi for the long drive back to the ship, and after we set sail that evening we ended the day with a dramatic sunset,