Friday, 7 January 2011

Her name was Lola ...

The temperature is now officially half-past fucking hot and the only way to enjoy the beach is for Rhea and I to take a very early morning walk – all the way to the headland between us and Ipanema, and a paddle in the extremely chilly Atlantic before the sun beats us indoors for breakfast. We’d been promised an endless parade of beautifully sculpted Brazilian bodies but what’s passing us either on the sand or the boardwalk is definitely not hot. It’s rather like Miami Beach, and if you’re thinking ‘Golden Girls’ think more the Sophia end of the spectrum than the Blanche.

It’s also an opportunity to assess Copacabana for what it is now and the faded showgirl from the Barry Manilow song is a useful metaphor. I’m struggling to remember the technical term for a once-glorious demi-monde that attracted people from all over the world to its glamorous nightlife and racy atmosphere but is now a shadow of its former self. Oh, right, I remember: shit-heap.

The high-rise narrow hotels which form a fourteen-storey terrace along the seafront remind me of Acapulco without the lush foliage, or perhaps Benidorm. This is not an exaggeration: one block from the front and you’re into decrepit old apartment buildings and tatty sidestreets of which even Brighton (all front and no knickers) would be ashamed.

We walked to the night market, a small parade of booths and stalls on the central reservation of the six-lane corniche selling every possible kind of lurid tourist tat except anything you’d actually want to buy, and it made me wonder if Copa is now aimed at tourists from other, poorer South American countries rather than Europeans or Americans. Although the hotel prices (well over $400 for a tiny room) don’t seem so low-budget.

For our ‘farewell dinner’ we were taken to a restaurant famed, if that’s what you’d call it, for its ‘eclectic’ decor. It’s not so eclectic for Pirates of the Caribbean to meet the Addams Family in an interior that looked as if it could have been installed overnight by a theatrical set-building team, but our group was in high spirits and the waiters in pirate headscarves and Goth boots brought excellent barbecued meats although the evening did feel a bit ‘manufactured’.

On the bus, Carla the tour director announces she is leaving early in the morning to return to her hillside pueblo in Costa Rica, despite the fact the tour doesn’t officially finish until 6pm. We’re in the hands of the local guide Will who’s actually smarter - being a university professor and veterinary surgeon as well as occasional tour guide. And gay. However quite a lot of the clients are annoyed Carla shipped out early since it means residual uncertainties over the checking of the sugar-loaf mountain of luggage they have collectively to transport to the airport.

After dinner, various clusters continue their evening drinking either in the hotel or in local bars but I have an assignation with Jorge and what we then do pressed up against the window overlooking the twinkling lights of Copacabana beach will stay in my memory rather longer than just another caipirinha.


I have to extend this piece by explaining that Copa is not Rio and Rio is not boring. It’s as much a collection of ‘villages’ as London and the residential areas of Copacabana, Lagoa, Ipanema, or Leblon have as little in common as Chelsea with Croydon. We take a short walk round the historical financial district where many buildings are already being gutted and reassembled for the World Cup and Olympic Games in 2014/16 and the scaffolding shrouds the many others getting their facades sandblasted in a masonic tribute to Rio’s face-lift industry.

We lunch at Confeteria Colombo, a turn-of-the-century landmark with ornate trilled mirrors and Thonet style furnishings but it’s now hedged in with messy shopping streets and many of us loll in the too-hot sun till departure time although Curt indulges in a bout of what can only be described as shirt-lifting with Will the gay local guide since they each return with a bag full of the things.

For the best and brightest views of the city, not to say the coolest and breeziest in a place where hot and still are the perpetual norm, we ascend variously to Sugar Loaf Mountain and to Christ the Redeemer atop Corcovado. I love the ‘Elevador’ funicular ride up Corcovado, it’s reminiscent of Madeira and Lisbon but others are vertiginously subdued.

Otakar, the Czech paterfamilias, and I discover our vertigos are directly similar but that these high balustrade terraces somehow don’t trigger it, so we’re more relaxed. Fellow-sufferer Curt wisely declines the higher platforms and gets time for coffee and to polish off the New York Times crossword. He didn’t miss much, a view is still a view even if you skip the last thousand feet.

As the group dissipates towards the end, we lunch with Bruce and Susan and have a final/farewell dinner with what I’ve rudely but affectionately been referring to as the ‘Jew Crew’ – the inseparable foursome of Wachts and Schechters, so lovely Robin, Rhona, Avi, Howie, Curt and I are booked for Aprazivel restaurant in the topmost suburb of Rio, Santa Teresa.

At first, most taxi drivers decline to take us claiming the route is dangerous, but a hotel car is braver and whilst we drive through a couple of slightly less genteel neighbourhoods on the lower slopes of the hill, as we continue up and up and up AND up, the streets become cobbled and the mansions grander until when we eventually think one more hairpin bend will mean oxygen masks fall from the roof of the car we arrive at a barely marked door in what is quite clearly an echelon above Rio de Janeiro in every sense.

Inside and down steep stairs, it's a delight with area after area of intimate and bucolic seating locations some at ground level and some actually perched in the trees - we were offered several choices and took a ledge overlooking the spectacular view which only improved with nightfall.

This is definitely a Cariocas' location - although there were some tourists, most of the guests speak Spanish or Portuguese and so do the waiters, although we find one fluent in English to help us through the interesting menu as well as with wine choices. Brazilian Gewurztraminer, anyone?

All our dishes were excellent, from the wood-roasted heart of palm - an absolute revelation to anyone who had, like me, only tasted the nasty canned stuff on buffet salads - and to which I am now a complete convert, and the excellent salt-water fish grilled and very lightly sauced with citrus, perfect medaillon of beef in an interesting jus and a wholly original souffle of spinach and banana on the side.

We shared a couple of desserts, my favourite being the tapioca ice cream – and if you’ve screamed the lunch room down as I have at being force-fed tapioca at school, I can promise you it’s completely different as a gelato – atop a delicious sludge of Acai berry. Yum.

And so with some reluctance we toast ourselves and the end of the trip.


Both Sides Now

Iguassu Falls from Argentina and from Brazil

What's New, Buenos Aires ?

New Year in Llao Llao

Llao Llao hotel, Bariloche

Sailing Through the Andes

And we’re off.

A not-too-early breakfast, bags left inside the bedroom which somehow mysteriously reappear again inside the hotel room at our next destination – this seamlessness is one of the reasons the tour costs what it does, and boy do we appreciate it as boarding passes are brought to us in our seats on the bus and we’re whisked through security to departure lounge without ever seeing a check-in queue. And if the collective baggage is overweight, the tour company pays the excess.

I wanted to put an exclamation mark there, but am editiing this in the transit lounge at Zurich airport where the keyboard doesn't seem to have one. What does that say about the Swiss character?

We’re on Chile’s Sky Airlines, whose fleet appears to be where 737s go to die. At over 30, ours is one of the oldest still flying but with comfortable seats and a tray meal – which has the Americans squeaking with excitement, used as they are to being thrown a bag of peanuts on even the longest US domestic flight – to arrive at Puerto Montt where again the formalities are minimal and we’re quickly on another coach moving towards our lunch destination in Puerto Varas.

The view on the ride down has been sensational – about thirty snow-capped volcanoes studding the cordillera of the Andean range, and now the scenery’s totally different as I’m reminded of the west of Scotland and islands like Arran or Skye where fingers of sea lochs push deep into the low hills of the landscape. There’s as much fishing here too, and apparently the locals will no longer eat salmon because they’re sick of fishing, farming and handling it for the export trade.

On the bus Carla passes round some ‘local’ scarves she’s bought which are allegedly made from Alpaca. When I see the 70/30 label (not to mention the one which says Made in Peru) I ask if we’ll spot any of the Acrylics with whom the Alpacas obviously mated to produce the fibre, but either she doesn’t understand or isn’t amused and her brightness suddenly seems a bit artificial.

Lunch is communal but convivial and there’s some good seafood to start as well as hot dishes we’d selected earlier to save time. It’s also quite Alpine both in the decor of the rustic chalet and the food: I hadn’t expected Wiener Schnitzel to be a Chilean favourites, but it is. Although I wish I’d had the grilled fish because it turns out to be lovely chunky blocks of hake. Wine’s pretty free-flowing so we’re all in a good mood for the afternoon spent around the shops and sights of Pto Varas where my 60 hours of beginner’s Spanish are sufficient for me to help several of the ladies acquire lapis lazuli jewellery in one of the shops.

Siesta, a walk along the seafront with two brilliant volcanoes outlined against the bluest of skies, cocktails, a reasonable dinner and a pleasant sleep in a climate I think of as my ‘own’ since we’re 52 degrees South and I live 52 degrees North.

Next day, the ‘Andean Crossing’ begins in earnest as for the next two full days we’re decanted from bus to dock to boat to bus to hydrofoil to catamaran to whatever in a sort of relay race which brings us across the mountain range and over the Argentine border to Bariloche.

I love it. Even when we’re in the midst of a swarm of ugly horseflies on disembarking at our overnight stop in Peulla, it feels like proper travelling – but with sherpas, since at every change our bags are carted or containerised behind the scenes. The views of the deep green or turquoise lakes and the conical mountains are glorious and we’re extremely lucky with the weather – this stretch can often be cold or rainy – but there are so many photo opportunities and chances to sit and admire the landscape, I never even open the book I brought.

Two long faced Long Island miseries – who fortunately leave us in Buenos Aires – almost spoil it with their moans that this is ‘boring’ but since their favourite holiday was Switzerland I can’t see what part of sparkling lakes, mountains, snow and sunshine is different from the alps: we even have a fondue in Bariloche, and get delicious hot chocolate on the Argentine boat ... perhaps they just liked the cuckoo clocks and watches.

Every tour needs a pair like this, it helps the rest to bond.