My hammock swayed a little in the ocean breeze way up on the 11th floor balcony of my spacious Airbnb apartment. I hummed along with “The Girl from Ipanema” which played on my phone and I took another sip of coconut juice from the fresh coconut I had just purchased at Zona Sul Grocery Store. My gaze focused on the beach front as I took it all in. I enjoyed the unique iconic Rio landscape, people walking along the beach and surfers hoping to get that perfect wave. I definitely felt like I was in Brazil.
Having passed through immigration and customs shortly after midnight, we reached the AirBnB via Uber around 1am. My excitement about the start of our Brazilian adventure made it difficult to fall asleep, but the exhaustion from the three flights it took to get there helped a bit. One of the many simple joys I have when traveling is arriving to a new place in the dark only to be surprised in the morning by the view the sun illuminates. With balconies on two sides of the building, the morning views did not disappoint!
Day 1: Lunch, Piedro do Arpoador and Caipirinhas
After our long travel day, I had no problem sleeping in a bit. But, waking up with nothing to eat or drink, made our first official vacation activity getting some lunch. Açougue Vegano was only a few minutes walk from the AirBnb and I was eager to have my first Brazilian food experience.
The small restaurant (with only two tables inside and one outside) was easy to find and I loved it right away for its unmistakable “vegan for the animals” vibe. Without knowing how to pronounce coxinha, I ordered a spinach one by pointing to it on the English menu they had given me. I’ve had many Brazilian students over the years and they all mentioned liking this quintessential Brazilian dish made with potato dough, so I was excited to try my very first one. I loved it!
Wanting a hearty meal, Chrissy enjoyed two of their shiitake mushroom dishes: shiitake skewers for an appetizer and the shiitake and chickpea stroganoff that came with rice and potatoes. For my main course, I ordered the moqueca – sliced banana in coconut milk sauce. My dish came with rice too, as well as something called farofa. Little did I know then that this would not be the last time I came across this cassava-based condiment in Brazil. In fact, it seemed to be readily available for every meal I would have and I very quickly wondered how I would ever be able to enjoy a meal without it!
With full bellies, we set out to a local grocery store to stock up our Airbnb kitchen. I loved seeing all the fresh fruit they had from papaya to soursop, mangoes, grapes, melons and the biggest avocado I’ve ever seen! I also picked up a container of organic açai juice.
In the late afternoon, we walked the few minutes out to Piedro do Arpoador (Peter’s Stone), a small peninsula that separates Ipanema Beach and Copacabana Beach. I quickly discovered it’s a great place to people watch, get great pictures of Rio’s iconic shoreline and watch the sunset. Piedro do Arpoador is a little piece of nature with short windy trails over rocks (careful, some of those big stones are slippery from decades of people stepping on them) surrounded by beautiful foliage with lots of scenic lookout points. Despite the popular time of day to visit, it was possible to find a moment alone to steal a kiss.
One of the drinks I was looking forward to (in addition to açai juice) was caipirinhas. I was frankly shocked that not only had Chrissy never tried one, but she had never even heard it this popular Brazilian drink. This simply had to be remedied, so we walked along Ipanema Beach and found a little place outside to get drinks and a dessert.
I was in heaven – drinking one of my favorite drinks in its country of origin with the love of my life, set to the backdrop of soft waves lapping at the shores of Rio! And the bonus? Turns out that Chrissy doesn’t like caipirinhas, so I got two! I also got to try açai sorbet with tapioca on top!
The caipirinha, considered Brazil’s national cocktail, is made with cachaça (a distilled spirit made from fermented sugarcane juice), green lemons (or limes if these aren’t available) and sugar. The important difference between cachaça and rum is that rum is made from sugarcane byproducts, cachaça is made directly from the sugarcane itself. The word caipirinha translates to “country little girl” (the diminutive of word “caipira”) and it emerged from the Brazilian state of São Paulo. I was sure to savor each sip of caipirinha I took, because I knew that I was spoiling all future experiences with this drink outside the country.
Day 2: Pão de Açúcar
After a relaxing morning on the scenic balcony of our Airbnb, we ubered over to Restaurante Bardana Cozinha Natural in Copacabana Beach, where we enjoyed their lunch buffet. This vegan eatery has tables inside and out and was quite busy with locals. The dishes in the buffet were marked in Portuguese only and none of the friendly staff spoke English, but since everything is vegan, there was no concern about eating animal products by mistake. The staff weighs your plate and gives you a slip of paper with the price. If you go back for seconds, they will give you a second slip of paper. At the end, you turn in the slips of paper and pay. I loved everything that made its way onto my plate!
After a hearty lunch, we headed over to what would be the highlight of our Rio experience: Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain). After paying for our round-trip tickets at one of the windows on the left (no line either!), we took the first three-minute gondola ride up to Morro da Urca (Urca Hill).
This level has some shops, a vertical garden and beautiful views of the surrounding areas. It also features some historical information about the original cable cars, the companies and the people who made it happen, including Brazilian engineer, Augusto Ferreira Ramos, who had the cable car idea in 1907. Urca Hill is also where we would have taken off in a helicopter if we had so decided. We opted not to simply because of the high cost for only an 8 minute flight. However, the only way to get those iconic shots of Christ the Redeemer is from the air. One of the highlights for me at this level was seeing all the large birds flying around around.
The second gondola took us up to Sugarloaf Mountain, which we discovered is it’s own biome! There are species of plants and animals that only exist on this vertical dome! Because of the uniqueness of the location, the flora and fauna have been studied for decades.
As expected, the view were breathtaking! I think there were shops up there, but to be honest, I was so mesmerized by the views that I didn’t even notice.
At one point, I saw a sign that said bosques (woods) and the explorer in me just had to go check it out! And I am so glad I did. The views were amazing and there were benches periodically placed on the trails that gave us a romantic secluded spot. I loved watching the lizards compete for territory and listening to the birds engage in conversation. The absolute highlight, however, was experiencing a troupe of marmosets pass through. I had no idea it was even possible to see them at Sugarloaf – what a treat!
Not ready to head back down to our starting point (Praia Vermelha), we opted to have a drink at the Classico Sunset Bar. We settled around a table overlooking Copacabana Beach and ordered a couple fruit juices (Chrissy got pineapple and I got passion fruit). Little did we know that the marmosets were not exactly shy around people with food. Before we knew it, a couple eager little monkeys had parked themselves on the railing, staring at a table surrounded by tourists.
As it became late afternoon, the crowds became bigger as watching the sunset from Sugarloaf can be quite a draw. Before starting our descent, we ducked into the small one-room museum and learned about a US-American tightrope walker, named Steven McPeak, who, in 1977, successfully walked over the gondola cable holding a huge metal pole as a counterweight. He used no safety net or harness of any kind. Unlike Steven, I got in line to board the gondola. What a great day in Rio!
We spent the evening snacking on food we had bought at the local grocery and watching The Girl From Ipanema on Netflix. It was in Portuguese (with English subtitles) set in Rio de Janeiro and had a character named Ligia! It was neat to see if we recognized any of the locations in the outdoor scenes.
Day 3: Cristo Redentor
After a lazy morning relaxing in the hammock on our balcony and listening to waves and the city commotion below, we headed out to explore Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer). There are a few ways of getting up Mount Corcovado to see Rio’s most iconic statue: 1) hiking up, 2) taking a van and 3) taking a train. While I would have enjoyed the hike, I was dissuaded after reading many accounts of robberies along the route. Besides, a train ride through the jungle sounded pretty great!
We got lucky because we bought our tickets just as a train was leaving. With Christ the Redeemer being the number one tourist attraction in Rio, it was not surprising to find the train pretty full, but we managed to find two seats together.
Once disembarking at the second and final stop, we began the short climb which included a bunch of steps and even two escalators. Honestly, the highlight of this “godly” experience for me was seeing the animals. We got to watch howler monkeys playing in the trees along the climb and on a coati on the descent. It was amazing!
Every time I look up the top world wonders to visit, Christ the Redeemer seems to make most lists (even though I much prefer Sugarloaf Mountain). I ascended the final escalator and there he was with outstretched arms blessing the city of Rio below.
I must admit that while I am not religious, the views from Mount Corcovado were indeed heavenly. I loved looking out over the water and seeing the layers of mountains and vertical domes in the landscape. It was a sunny day and the rays often caused the beautiful blue water to sparkle.
When we said goodbye to Christ the Redeemer, little did I know that we were about to embark on the culinary highlight of our few days in Rio de Janeiro! We ubered to Teva, an upscale, yet unpretentious, vegan eatery with seating both inside and out, located in Ipanema.
We were quickly seated and handed English menus. I can honestly say that deciding what to order was very challenging because every dish intrigued me. For appetizers, I finally landed on acarajé, a housemade black eyed peas fritters, creamy caruru peanut sauce, grilled okra, spicy hearts of palm and tomato salsa, red palm oil and cilantro. Anyone who knows me well knows that this dish has me written all over it! It’s full of some of my favorite ingredients and I would not likely find it anywhere else.
Chrissy ordered the Vietnamese rolls – rice paper wraps, soba noodles, lettuce, Uai tofu, Do Vale cogumelos shiitake, veggies, mango, mint, cilantro and spicy peanut sauce. I must say that they were delicious, as was the acarajé.
For the main course, I ordered housemade orange sweet potato gnocchi which came with grilled mushroom mix, broccolini, cilantro and lemon gremolata, toasted almonds, and vegan parmesan. I am a big fan of gnocchi, but I had never tried a sweet potato variety so I was eager to experience this dish.
Chrissy ordered vegetable paella as her main. This dish was made with mini arborio rice, red bell peppers, artichokes, corn, shimeji, peas, seitan chorizo, asparagus, paprika, Spanish saffron and Chipotle mayo. Both of our mains lived up to the high expectations the appetizers gave us.
Without a doubt, the most difficult decision we had to make was selecting a dessert. With an array of amazing choices like banoffee flambé, sticky coffee cake, oat milk-based ice-cream and chocolate pecan pie, I knew that anything we ordered would be good. We finally decided on the banoffee flambé. Check out the description on the menu for this dessert:
almond crumble, coconut dulce de leche, banana liqueur cream, Maré Chocolates shavings, Naveia vanilla ice cream, banana brûlée and flambé and pecans.
Doesn’t that sound amazing?! And it was!
With very full bellies and a satiated palette, we walked the 40 minutes along Ipanema Beach back to our Airbnb. What a great way to finish a wonderful day in Rio!
Day 4: Medical Issue Cancels Favela Tour
The final day of our visit did not go as planned. One of the aspects of Brazilian culture I wanted to explore was a favela. A favela translates to slum in English and there are many of them in Rio de Janeiro. Each favela is different and I was eager to learn more about the various aspects of favela culture that comes out of shared struggles. I wanted to see reportedly interesting artwork, hear original music and meet some of the residents. I was also hoping to learn more about the history of favelas in Brazil, as well as more about the relationship of favelas to the Brazilian government and how the community plays an important role in these make-shift societies.
Well, shortly after booking a tour, I realized that I had a UTI. Given that we were flying to Foz do Iguacu the next morning, it was imperative that I handle this minor (but could become major) medical emergency right away. But, being in a foreign country where I don’t speak the local language and unfamiliar with where one goes for this type of medical issue, I was out completely out of my element.
Chrissy and I looked up and found a local doctor, but when we went there, the address turned out to be that of a restaurant. We asked some locals on the street and they pointed towards a medical lab on the subsequent corner. By using Google translator, I was able to communicate my issue to the very friendly woman there, who looked up and wrote down the address of a local medical clinic where I could be helped. After a short Uber ride to the clinic, I found myself getting added to the Brazilian medical system. My knowledge of some basic Spanish, and the very little Portuguese I had learned, helped me provide the information the woman needed. I was motioned to go to the waiting room and listen for my name to be called.
Without having any idea of how long I might be waiting, I fell asleep, hoping Chrissy (who insisted on going with me – isn’t she sweet) would hear my name called. About an hour later, I was awoken by a woman who motioned for me to follow her, which I did. We took the elevator up to the second floor and I was told to sit on the bench and wait.
There were a few others there as well and before I knew it, my name was called. I went inside and the very friendly nurse found a doctor who spoke English for me. I told her my symptoms and she wrote me a prescription for antibiotics and told me that I could get it filled right downstairs at the pharmacy. Within 10 minutes I had my medication in my hands! So, how much did all this cost? A big fat nothing! Not even for the medication! I couldn’t believe it! Here I was a foreigner in Brazil, having paid no local taxes, and they extended their national health program to me. I left both relieved that I had what I needed and extremely grateful for the kindness of everyone I came in contact with that day.
While we missed our tour of a local favela, the events of the day allowed me to learn more about the Brazilian medical system. With the proper medication in hand, I was all too happy to return to Teva, what had become our favorite restaurant in Rio!
I had enjoyed the acarajé so much the night before, that I ordered the appetizer again. Wanting to try something new, Chrissy ordered the portobello carpaccio – roasted Fazenda Velha mushrooms, capers
and herbs dressing, Basi.co parmesan cheese, pickled red onion, arugula and rosemary crackers to soak it all up. We both loved the rich earthy flavors of this dish.
For the main course I decided to try Teva’s raviolone with housemade Mirella flour pasta stuffed
with portobello mushroom and tofu ricotta in a creamy cashew-based sauce, panko and truffle oil.
Chrissy ordered the piamontese cutlets, consisting of breaded seitan with demi-glace sauce, Paris
mushrooms, piemontese risotto, cashew cream, Basi.co mozzarella and fried potato wedges. We both enjoyed our meals to the fullest!
Having thoroughly enjoyed our few days in Rio de Janeiro, we caught an Uber to the airport the following morning to fly to our next Brazilian adventure: Iguazu Falls!