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,
February 19 was our second day in Buenos Aires. There was an earlier settlement here from 1536 to 1542, but Buenos Aires was permanently founded in 1580. It is the capital of Argentina and has a population of almost 3 million, with close to 16 million in the metropolitan area.
We took the ship’s shuttle bus downtown to Plaza General San Martin & walked to Plaza Lavalle. On the way we passed the Torre Monumental. Built by the Argentine British community using bricks & stone shipped from England, it was originally called the Torre de los Ingleses (Tower of the English), but after the Falklands War in 1982 its name was changed. Intended for the celebration of the centennial of the May Revolution of 1810, it was not actually completed until 1916. We crossed Avenida 9 de Julio, an enormous avenue with an impressive view that is more than 100 yards wide. It is divided into several parallel streets with the metrobus running down the middle and it often takes two or three changes of the traffic lights to get all the way across. First planned in 1888 the avenue was not completed until the 1980’s.
Lavalle plaza was named in 1878 for Juan Lavalle, a leader in the war for independence that ended in 1825. The park is three blocks long and contains a number of trees more than 100 years old. It was the site of a massacre of more than 300 demonstrators in 1890. In the middle of the park is a very tall monument to General Lavalle, who was a direct descendant of Hernan Cortez. Erected in 1887, it consists of a sculpture of the general on top of a pillar. The red cupola to the right of the statue is what remains of the Mirador Massue, a 1903 apartment complex. To the left behind the monument is the National Palace of Justice, opened in 1910, which houses the Supreme Court.
Across the street from the plaza is the Sinagoga de la Congregacion Israelita Argentino built between 1897 and 1932 Some quarter of a million Jews live in greater Buenos Aires, the largest Jewish community in Latin America and the eighth largest in the world. You may notice that the mosaic in the last picture looks like Mr Spock’s Vulcan salute from Star Trek. No, this is not a Vulcan temple. Leonard Nimoy, who was Jewish, actually took that from a Jewish prayer ceremony he remembered from his childhood.
Two important theaters sit on the edge of the plaza. Teatro Nacional Cervantes opened in 1921 and was extensively renovated after a fire in 1961. It houses the National Stage Theater & the National Comedy Theater. The larger Teatro Colon is the main opera house of Buenos Aires & is considered one of the great opera houses of the world. It opened in 1908 on the site of an earlier theater that had opened in 1857. The Cervantes theater was not open to visitors when we were there. We had planned to tour the Teatro Colon, but when we were in line for tour tickets we were told that an electrical failure meant that the lights would not be working in the theater. Concluding that there was no point in touring the opera house with the lights off, we walked away disappointed.
Leaving Plaza Lavalle, we trekked on toward Plaza de la Republica where the Obelisk of Buenos Aires is located. One of the main icons of the city, it sits in the middle of the wide Avenida 9 de Julio and is visible up and down the avenue. Built in 1936, the Obelisk is 220 feet tall. The Argentine flag was first raised at a church located here on August 23, 1812, by its designer General Manuel Belgrano.
We walked on to the Café Tortoni, a venerable coffee house that is also a national historic monument. Opened in another location in 1858, and named after a popular café in Paris, it was moved to its present location on Avenida de Mayo in 1889. The current entrance was opened in 1898. The floor above the café contains the Tango Museum. The café’s interior is supposed to be quite impressive, but we didn’t have time to spend here if we were going to make it to the last shuttle bus back to the ship. Maybe next time.
We walked through the streets toward the Plaza de Mayo. The streets of Buenos Aires are crowded and noisy, in stark contrast to Montevideo, but the architecture is interesting, particularly the wrought iron balconies.
As we approached Plaza de Mayo we encountered the Metropolitan Cathedral on our left. Completed in the 1860’s, the Cathedral is on a site set aside for the church at the founding of the city in 1580, which held several earlier churches and cathedrals that didn’t hold up. Frescoes were added to the interior walls in 1907 and the floor was covered in mosaics in 2010. The main gilt wood altar and the pulpits date from the 1780’s. The cathedral has a beautiful pipe organ built in 1871 with more than 3500 pipes.
Jose de San Martin was one of the leaders of the South American fight for independence from Spain. He was the leader of the successful liberation of Argentina and Chile and participated in the liberation of Peru. After an unsuccessful conference with Simon Bolivar at Guayaquil in 1822 in which he sought to join forces, San Martin suddenly resigned his command and in 1824 moved to Europe. He died there in 1850 and was buried in France.
In 1880 his remains were moved to a mausoleum in the Metropolitan Cathedral in Buenos Aires. It is fashioned with variously colored marble. His black sarcophagus is on a raised platform surrounded by three female figures representing Argentina, Chile and Peru, the three largest regions whose freedom from Spanish colonialism is attributed to him. At the door is an honor guard.
Plaza de Mayo was set out in 1884 on an area that included the Plaza de Armas of the original settlement. It has been the location of a good deal of political activity over the years. In recent times it was the location of the weekly vigils of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo from 1973 to 2006. These were women whose adult children had been “disappeared” during the military dictatorship and they were demanding information about the missing people and exposing the regime’s crimes to the world. They wore white headscarves embroidered with their children’s names to symbolize the diapers of their missing children, they marched 2 by 2 in silence. Some of them also “disappeared” and several were later found to have been murdered. Today the area where they held their demonstrations is decorated with stylized headscarves.
In the middle of the plaza is the Piramide de Mayo, a statue representing Liberty standing on top of a pyramidal base. First erected in 1812 to celebrate the first anniversary of the May Revolution that set off the war for independence, the monument has been renovated several times and was moved some 60 yards to its current location in 1912. In 2005 the ashes of Azucena Villaflor, founder of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo who had been murdered by the military dictatorship, were buried at the base of the pyramid. In front of the pyramid is an equestrian statue of General Manuel Belgrano, a hero of the wars of independence, holding aloft the Argentine flag which he had designed. It was unveiled in 1873.
At the end of the plaza behind the piramide is the Casa Rosada, the seat of the executive branch of the government. This spot began as a fort in the original 16th century settlement and has been changed a number of times. The current building was completed in 1898. The building was first painted pink in the 1860’s, and we have seen two explanations: 1) that it was intended as a blending of the colors of the two major political parties, the Whites and the Reds, or 2) that cow’s blood was included in the original paint to protect from damage from humidity. The balcony to the left of the central portico has been the scene of many political speeches to crowds gathered in the plaza, notably by Juan and Eva Peron.
So by now we were pretty much done in. A lot of walking on a very hot day (what a contrast to Antarctica, less than three weeks earlier) will do that to you. And we still had to hoof it all the way back to Plaza San Martin to meet the shuttle bus before the deadline. We wanted to mail some post cards, but when we finally found a post office it didn’t sell postcards. It’s amazing how hard it is in a city this size to find postcards! While searching for the post office we came across some more interesting buildings, including Centro Naval, a social club founded in 1882 by Argentine Navy officers. And back at Plaza San Martin, where we narrowly missed one shuttle bus and had a lengthy wait for another, we came across a metal sculpture of butterflies.
Exhausted as we were when we reached the ship, we were glad there would be two sea days before our next port. So we said goodbye to Argentina and headed north toward Brazil.
On February 18 we were docked in Buenos Aires, about 125 miles up river and on the other side from Montevideo. We had visited here for two days in 2012:
So we decided to spend the first day getting out of the city on an excursion to visit an Estancia for a look at gaucho life. This started with a long bus ride through the country with a voluble guide who spent quite a while demonstrating the venerable rituals surrounding the drinking of mate. When we finally reached the estancia we were served wine or beer along with delicious empanadas.
Historically an estancia was like a ranch set in the pampas, a grassy area of Argentina where the animals could profitably graze. Gauchos are the Argentine version of cowboys, with such skills as horse riding and breeding and hunting with the bolo, a three cord weapon with a ball or stone attached on the end. The one we visited plainly dates back to that time and was once a working ranch but appears today to be maintained as a place for tourists. But it is well maintained to give a taste of the gaucho lifestyle.
The original ranch house is maintained as a museum containing furniture and other items dating back 100 years or more. It includes a fully decked out kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, dining room and chapel. On the front porch was a chair apparently made from the bones of a steer and it had a nice view of a large grassy yard and a stand of trees.
Leaving the house, we walked around the grounds for a while, taking in the trees, grass and flowers, and then walked over to the horse shelter. We didn’t see any cattle or sheep here, but there were plenty of horses. This grassy land is about all we would see of the pampas, a 300,000 square mile area in central Argentina of grasslands and few trees known for cattle raising. There were a lot of trees here, but they were probably planted by the folks who lived here.
The gauchos spent a lot of time leading horses around, apparently to demonstrate what they do on an estancia. There were two horse activities for the visitors, riding a horse in a group walking slowly around a track and riding in a horse-drawn cart. We did the latter – interesting, but too slow to be exciting.
We sat in some stands to watch the horse demonstrations. First the gauchos herded the horses to trot in a large circle. The horses probably do this every day so prodding them into line is likely not too hard. The best part of this demonstrations was a couple of dogs who lounged in the shade of the stands until the horses started to move, then shot out through the hedge to help guide the horses, with great enthusiasm and having a great time.
More interestingly, the gauchos engaged in a competition in which they would gallop at speed under a log from which hung some small rings. Using a lance about the size of a large fountain pen they would stand up in the saddle and try to lance the ring, often successfully. Giving the ring to a lady in the audience, it was explained, entitled the gaucho to a kiss from the recipient. It didn’t look easy (spearing the ring, not the kiss).
It was time for luncheon so we headed back to the main building. On one side of the entrance patio was a gaucho store (probably a mockup rather than a working store). The main building on the other side housed a vast dining room; it appears we were lucky because on some days they must host several times as many people as were in our party, the only one there today. We walked past the barbecue and a circle of bone chairs on our way in and sat at the long tables where we were served wine, beer and steaks or lamb. The steaks were pretty good, but the Argentines cook it longer than we prefer.
While we ate there was entertainment on a small stage. A singer & guitar player and some dancers. The dancers in particular were very good, particularly the one who danced at the end with a couple of boleros. We were behind a pillar, so photos were difficult to get.
Back on the ship this evening we had another show of Argentine dancing, including tango, gaucho style, drumming and bolo dancing. The three performers were quite good, but we would have been more impressed if we hadn’t seen the dancing demonstration at the estancia, which was at least as good (if less dramatic in presentation). Unfortunately, the lighting was pretty dark and I probably left my camera on the wrong setting, so the pictures aren’t great. Here are some anyway, to end our first day in Buenos Aires.