There is only one way to get back to South Africa from South America, and that is from São Paulo in Brazil. I decided to grant myself a little rest break in Rio de Janeiro, while I was in the country, rather than visit São Paulo, at the end of a three-month trip in Cuba and in South America. I visited the top tourist attractions and restaurants in this city.
Immigration in Rio was quick and efficient, after we walked at least 1/2 km from the plane exit. I needed local cash, and was shocked at the tourism tax levied on the currency exchange, reducing the payout to only half the official rate, daylight robbery. It felt like Cuba, with prices for tourists.
I couldn’t connect to the airport wifi, as one can only do it via one’s Facebook or Instagram accounts, but since the hacking my passwords are so complicated that I do not remember them! So I couldn’t call an Uber. A taxi service dropped her rate by 50% when I told her that I would look at Uber, down from R650 to R450. The hotel told me that I should have only paid half of the lower rate.
I had been advised to stay in Ipanema or Copacabana, and was warned in numerous occasion that I should remove all my jewellery in this city, as one’s earrings or other jewellery could just be ripped off. I dutifully followed this instruction.
Breakfast at the well-located Arena Ipanema Hotel was a typical hotel buffet, not terribly exciting. But they do have the most amazing granola, more nuts than cereals, with a number of fresh fruits, and natural yoghurt. And I found a Lady Grey Tea which I had never tried before, even better than Earl Grey.
I wanted to explore, and saw some surfing dudes walk past our breakfast room, so followed in their footsteps. The surfing beach itself is tiny, with its own name Apoador, a type of buffer dividing Ipanema and Copacabana. A row of surfboards demarcates the surfing beach. There is a rock there, and I read that in the bad old days whales were harpooned from it. In summer the sunset view from there is legendary, I was told.
I headed towards Ipanema, and walked and walked, with the most interesting shaped mountain called Pão de Açúcar, looking like an open whale mouth to me. I started picking up the handful of litter I saw, to get back into practice for my return. Every kilometer or so there is an impressive looking double storey lifeguard building, with public loos at street level. The beach is demarcated into sections, with an operator managing loungers in it, and offering its clients WiFi. Little bars are on the pavement, selling iced coconut water and the Brazilian cocktail Caipirinha. Every now and again there are cement benches to enjoy the view from. Not overly full, but a long beach accommodating all ocean lovers. No food outlets, just a mobile hot mielie seller. No ice cream sellers at all. Only water, beer, cold drink sellers. Many vendors sell touristy memorabilia, large colourful beach wraps, beaded musical instruments, and more. I felt totally safe, and there was no attempt to come near me. Wearing shorts with pockets helped, my phone in a pocket and the handbag in the safe.
I had a problem with Uber for the first time related to payment, it refusing to accept both my credit cards, each with ample funds, it offering the option of cash or Paypal payment. My heart sank, as I needed to Uber to a number of places. I wrote to Uber, but did not hear from them in a week, having to contact the South African office, but they could not explain it either.
On the first evening I ate at the 74th Best Restaurant in the World (Rank 100 last year), one Michelin star Restaurant Lasai. The two menus are Basque-inspired, ‘Festival’ of 15 courses (345 Brazilian Real, R1300), and ‘Don’t Mess with Me’ of 7 courses (295 Real, R1200). I chose the Full Menu. Chef Rafael Costa e Silva worked at the Top 10 Restaurant Mugaritz near San Sebastián in Spain for five years, before opening his own restaurant in Rio five years ago. The restaurant garnered a Michelin star within its first year. São Paulo and Rio are the only two South American cities in which Michelin rates the top Restaurants.
Initially I was impressed. All the staff I dealt with spoke perfect English, my waiter also being the Manager. The staff is friendly and informally dressed, with three-quarter black slacks, a white knitted top, and grey apron. I found a lone bottle of South African wine on the wine list, a Testalonga Baby Bendito Chenin Blanc 2018 ‘Keep on Punching’ by Craig Hawkins of Made from Grapes, and the sommelier allowed me to photograph it. She discovered it in France three years ago. She described drinking it as ‘electric’. The decor is minimalist, with no art, some walls showing raw brick, and a bell jar with a suspended vegetable on each table communicating that the food, and vegetables specifically are the hero at this restaurant. Wines by the glass were a mix from France, Germany, Australia, and Brazil of course. I was allowed to try three wines, and chose the Brazilian Orange wine (pricy at R200 by the glass), not knowing which dishes we would be served on the ‘Secret Menu’. Nine dishes were vegetable. Two were shellfish/fish. Only one was meat. A most unusual palate cleanser was four pieces of cheese and four honey types, each made by a different type of bee. Interesting.
The downside was that I missed a story in the Menu; I did not feel the excitement of eating at a restaurant of this caliber, it being casual, even amongst the patrons, a mother breastfeeding her baby at a table closest to me (but to its credit, the baby did not make a single sound all evening); the salt hand was evident throughout the savory dishes; My waiter forgot to mention some ingredients which I picked up via taste; He did not seem to know basic aspects of the dishes, for example, the age of the cheeses of the palate cleanser; I was refused butter for the very hard bread, saying they had none in the kitchen, causing me to flip just a little. My replaced napkin was intended to be a fresh one, but had spots on it; and the waiter did not request any feedback about any of the dishes…. !
A highlight was being able to meet Chef Rafael in the kitchen, he having been there all evening, such a rare experience. We did a speed trip around South America, he asking me where I’d eaten, and I gave him my feedback. He was surprised with what I told him about our eating experience at Boragó in Santiago. He showed me their private Dining Room upstairs, and one can see the lit up Christ the Redeemer statue from there. My detailed Review of Lasai follows.
I tried to sort out my Uber problem with Carlos, one of the Hotel receptionists. We reloaded the credit card details of both cards, and it was then that I saw the fine print that Uber only accepts Brazilian bank credit cards. So Carlos found a taxi driver with a fixed fee, so that I could get around the City.
I walked to Copacabana, but found it far more commercial than the Ipanema side, with one beach restaurant after the other, and more dubious characters around. So I went back to Ipanema, enjoyed the sunshine and buzz there, popped in at a Cultural Festival for a short while, and then went to the rooftop bar of the hotel, to claim my welcome drink of a Caipirinha, a Brazilian cocktail.
Uber wrote back about 18 hours after my message to them, …. in Portuguese. When I Google Translated their message, it instructed me to rewrite my message to them in Brazilian Portuguese! What a joke!
The hotel had booked two tickets for me for a Rio Tourist day, both destinations synonymous with Rio. It took some time to organize the taxi connections between the two destinations, but in the end we booked driver Leonardo to drive me to them, and to wait for me at each until I was ready. He was on the agreed spot each time, so this removed all the stress.
The first tourist trip was to Christ the Redeemer. You have to book a specific time to get onto the tourist train. They are flexible though, and I got onto a train twenty minutes later than booked. We went up to the statue 710 meters above sea-level. The train climbs up the mountain at a steep angle, alongside tall trees, jungle-like, until you get to the final platform, with one stop midway, a 25 minute trip. There were hordes of people, on the train and also already at the top. Everyone does the predictable pic, stretching one’s arms out including yours truly. Many photographers lay on the ground to get the ultimate pic.
From there we drove to the Sugarloaf Mountain. A guide told me that it is named after a sugar plantation on which the mountain stands, and the mountain shaped like a loaf. I saw a breaching whale in this mountain. This operation is equally impressive, much more modern than that of Christ the Redeemer, which was developed about 80 years ago. The top of Sugarloaf Mountain is 400 meters above sea-level. One takes two different cable car trips, to get to the top of the Sugarloaf. Each of the platforms has a range of eateries, each with magnificent views of Rio, so much water, like Sydney and Cape Town. Getting onto the Sugarloaf, you do not see it, you ‘only’ see the view, as the cable station is on its tip. There is little walking to do on top as a result.
When I got down from Sugarloaf, there was Leonardo waiting for me, ready to take me back to the hotel. What a fabulous outing, thanks to the beautiful day, at 33C.
Dinner was at Oteque, the 100th Best Restaurant in the world and one Michelin Star, already achieved for this restaurant, having opened 18 months ago. Owner and Chef Alberto Landgraf previously owned a top restaurant in São Paulo. The 8 course Tasting Menu costs 345 Real (R1300), with two wine pairing options offered, tea and water prices, and the 12,5% service fee specified all spelt out on the menu, so that it is clear and upfront.
Chef Alberto is of Japanese and German extraction, and it reflects in his menu partly, even though he uses Brazilian ingredients. The menu is simple, in English, and one receives it when one arrives – no secret blind eating here. As a single I was seated at a Chef’s Table, practical as I would not take up a full table, with two other couples, all tables in the restaurant being round four-seaters. At the Chef’s Table I was almost in the kitchen, the chefs totally relaxed in preparing the dishes an arm’s length away from us. I chatted to Sous Chef Nilson Chaves, with very good English. Chef Alberto arrived at 21h00, and stayed until close of service. He came to chat, told me that he worked in London for six years, for Gordon Ramsay amongst others, also learning to speak ‘proper’ English.
It was a surprise to see a couple dining at the restaurant, whom I had as my table neighbours at Lasai restaurant two evenings prior. Diego and Rodrigues love eating out, and laughed when I told them that I am banned from some restaurants in South Africa. They said that this would never happen in South America. Even more surprising was to see the same South African wine I saw at Lasai. Oteque stocks a light sparkling wine, the Chenin, Carmargan, and Cinsaut from Craig Hawkins in the Swartland, Testalonga Baby Bandito. They had a Saffraan from Mount Arbor on the wine list too. I chose a glass of the Chenin Blanc 2018 (80 Real), and a Malbec 2016, from Chateau Combel La-Serre, from Cahors in France (70 Real), the original home of Malbec. It was unbelievable to see how the wine by the glass list was dominated by French and Italian wines. Sommelier and Restaurant Manager Leo knows his wines, and he would love to get a bigger allocation of our Testalonga wines. He is a very reserved person, it being difficult to connect with him.
I loved the eight course Tasting Menu, one not leaving hungry, most other restaurants I ate at at this level serving Tasting Menus with 12 plus courses. I loved the brilliant single lamp for each place setting, excellent for the food pics. I loved the spoon offered for each dish with a sauce, the water topped up, the chefs serving the dishes and explaining them, the playlist being a mixed bunch including the Beatles, the excellent wines, the three-ingredient dishes, the dishes the food was served in, the light as a feather Zalto glasses, the decor, with tan leather chairs, there being little evidence of salt in the food, and I was lucky to have Andrea and Carlos sit next to me, telling me that our wines have such a good reputation.
I missed fish knives for their many fish dishes, and some of the younger chefs let down the kitchen by not explaining more about the dish, just repeating what was printed on the menu, perhaps a language issue. One chef was in the kitchen for only a week, and he told me some nonsense information about the lamb dish, which I could get rectified.
Of all the South American Top restaurants I ate at, this one had the most locals eating at it, I hearing no English spoken by anyone else.The Review is below:
The next morning I flew to São Paulo, where it rained heavily, and it was cold in the airport building. The flight info boards are made for 3 meter tall Brazilian giants, being so high up. With the help of some fellow passengers I could get to see the gate number. My sign language improved greatly on this trip.
The flight back was with LATAM, the Brazilian airline. Other options were SAA and TAAG Angola Airlines, both of which I dismissed for obvious reasons! There were sniffer dogs everywhere as we left the plane and in the airport building in Johannesburg, and I realized that the flight from Brazil must be top priority, due to drug trafficking. A dog and handler were already at the door of the plane as we got out.
And so ended a most fascinating wonderful three-month journey, both for me personally in travelling Solo, and in getting to know parts of four South American countries, Cuba, walking the Portuguese Coastal Camino from Porto in Portugal to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and revisiting the UK to see my son.
This is an excerpt from my newest Book ‘SwitchBitch: my journey of transformation in travelling Solo, step by step’, the third in the SwitchBitch Transformation Trilogy, which will be published next week. It is available directly from me, as well as on Amazon.com for Kindle.
Chris von Ulmenstein, WhaleTales Blog: www.chrisvonulmenstein.com/blog Tel +27 082 55 11 323 Twitter:@Ulmenstein Facebook: Chris von Ulmenstein Instagram: @Chrissy_ulmenstein