Rio De Janeiro Ipanema

Grab a nice glass of wine, a cold water or a good snack and settle in. GSTP presents part three of our “we’re bored out of our minds at home” travel retrospective series, looking back at some pivotal travel moments which shaped the creation of GSTP.

Even an atheist would be excused for using the word “blessed” in Rio De Janeiro. Everywhere you turn, inconceivably dramatic viewpoints are standard fare, and after a few caipirinhas it almost doesn’t seem fair. How can a city be this beautiful, inviting and colorful, yet so misunderstood?

Back in the days when Delta published award charts to cash in your points and a round trip ticket in business class cost 100,000 points, I burned through some miles for a trip to Rio. Unlike my decades of burning through miles beforehand, I had a companion on this trip.

Rio De Janeiro AerialI’d convinced my (now) wife Laura to stick with one airline, or at least group of airlines for our year of transatlantic travel, claiming it would all pay off eventually, even if it didn’t feel like it in the moment. This trip was the a-ha moment for a points and miles convert.

I don’t think Laura actually believed in the merits of frequent flyer programs until we actually boarded the plane and trusted it wasn’t all a hoax. Once it all settled in, the after burners were on. But we’re here to talk about Rio.

You know a great destination when you’re already buzzing on approach. Wow, those are vibrant green mountains. Woah, those seas look stunning. It’s not quite as dramatic as an arrival into the domestic Santos Dumont (SDU) Airport, but an arrival into GIG is still fun.

Even before the wheels touched down, I knew it was everything I’d hoped.

The car rolled down Avenida Atlantica and life was almost too surreal. This was the place from the song, that view from the postcards and the inimitable smell of fresh surf all rolled in one. Try not singing ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ or cheesier ‘Copacabana’, or Duran Duran classic ‘Rio’ while in Rio, I dare you.

We checked into the Miramar Hotel by Windsor and I think I stared out the partial ocean view window for about 20 minutes before I accepted Rio as a reality and not something from a dream. I then had to repeat the same action from the hotels rooftop pool. But this is all background, and Rio is the perfect background.

In days when TripAdvisor felt more trustworthy, we hired a guide named Ederson after seeing a few positive reviews. He was new to the game, but clearly had a spark. I’ve always been a fan of booking private tours whenever possible affordable, and this was one of those seminal moments.

Ederson picked us up first thing the next morning and in what felt like minutes we were going against gravity in the back of his car, even more aghast by seeing that people were also managing to bike up the incredible hill. Before long, we were at the Vista Chinesa.

Good luck finding a more stunning vantage point, anywhere.

a road with palm trees and people on itThe Vista Chinesa, better translated as the Chinese view is the place where all of Rio fits into one frame. Your eyes will struggle to fully process it in equal measure with your camera phone. This was the first moment in my traveling life I wished I had one of those massive full frame cameras.

Is it the best panoramic view I’ve ever encountered? I don’t know, but it’s in the conversation.

Rio from above is magic, even if its also where much of its sadness is found as well. This is a city of extreme wealth and poverty, and from one of the city’s famous beaches, anywhere up a steep hill typically leads to the colorful favelas where tourists are not really welcomed. What’s amazing is that these humble favelas don’t look sad – if anything they’re the cheeriest dwellings you’ll find.

It’s probably important to dismiss a fallacy about Rio while we’re here. The city is very safe, if you’re street smart. Wandering up into a favela looking for drugs is going to get you robbed, but you could say the same in London, New York or any trusted part of the world. Be humble, tuck the crazy jewelry and ask when in doubt. I never worry in Rio.

a woman standing in the waterAfter winding through the hills, trusty Ederson popped us over to Christ The Redeemer, or “Big Jesus” as someone *wink, wink* referred to the massive statue. It too is an impressive and worthwhile thing to see. I had to get the Usain Bolt action shot in, while I was there. Again, you just feel like you’re in some crazy amusement park, with the steepest roller coasters for walking paths.

While crossing off the obligatory tourist things, Sugarloaf is a classic, particularly if you’re an aviation geek. Watching planes climb right into you is such a thrill and looking back over Rio harbor, stunning beaches and Christ The Redeemer is very cool.

Santa Theresa, Botafogo, Lapa – there are so many ‘hoods worth visiting.

What I love about Rio though is the vibe.

People are laid back, surf is life, beach is life and food is a celebration. Somehow it’s always time for a caipirinha too, and I never mind. Does it get any better than jogging or strolling from Copacabana to Ipanema or Leblon? Not really.

It only took about 100 walking steps past volleyball games, beach football and outdoor gyms to see why so many of the most iconic football/soccer players and Olympic medalists hail from this dreamy land. I triple-double-dog dare any of you to join one of those beach football games.

Much of the dining scene throughout the city feels very bohemian, but also very chic. It’s an odd, but lovely combo. And yes, the meat is as fantastic as all the loudmouths say, but its the abundance of incredible seafood and rain forest fruits and vegetables that deserve extra praise. When your hotel says ‘fruit plate’, this is not what you’re used to.

After a few days bopping around, Ederson was cool enough to invite us out of the touristic parts of the city and to a proper churrascaria where the value was as stunning as the produce. I’m not sure I’ve ever been more uncomfortable from overeating, but it was all worth it.

This wonderful thing named Rio is a blessed city in almost every way. As global tourism has dropped to a stand still, I wish I could return the great feelings Ederson brought to us on that special trip and buy him a cold beer in the sun. When travel is advisable again, I think I will.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. Fantastic and agree. Rio is the place I dream about being locked down and unable to travel, and will be the first place I go when things resume. The best city in the world (allowing for the possible exception of Hong Kong).

  2. It’s so nice that you were able to experience it back then. At this point in time, with the current administration and unrest, I’m not so sure it’s a welcoming place at least right now. With their highly discriminatory and hate-filled agenda at the top of the country, I personally have zero desire to visit there. I hope things return to normal at some point as it looks like a nice place.

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