The land of Uncle Sam

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In December 2018 Alejandro and I went to the United States of America to spent Christmas there with his family. We went to Miami Beach in the sunny state of Florida, spent a day in amusement parks in Orlando and enjoyed family time in Atlanta, Georgia. Amazing!

ISTANBUL (TURKEY)

Facts about the city:

Istanbul is the only city in the world that’s half in Asia and half in Europe. The Bosporus strait which divides the two continents passes through Istanbul and is the link between Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea.

Istanbul is the city of mosques. You will find a mosque in every corner of Istanbul. It has a total of 3,113 mosques.

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We flew to USA with Turkish Airlines. We don’t have direct flights from Malta to Miami, so we had to fly with Turkish Airlines to Istanbul, Turkey, and get a connection flight from there. We landed in Istanbul at 10.30pm, and our flight to Miami departed only the next day, at 1pm.

With Turkish Airlines, passengers having a connection time of 10 hours or longer can benefit from hotel service free of charge in case there’s no transit flight with a shorter connection time. This was our case, so we had free accommodation provided by Turkish Airlines. We stayed in a very nice hotel called Ramada Encore Istanbul Bayrampasa. The airline offered us transportation to/from the hotel and we also had breakfast included.

Istanbul is the largest and most populous city in Turkey. Spread across Bosporus Channel, Istanbul is one of the world’s greatest cities, known for its magnificent historical monuments and scenic beauty. I’ve never been in Istanbul until this trip, and it was on my bucket list for years, so I was very excited!

Despite the short time we had, we took a taxi to the city center and tried to explore the city the best we could. We managed to see some mosques – the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. These two mosques are connected by a nice park – Sultanahmet Square.

Sultan Ahmed Mosque is also known as the Blue Mosque because of blue tiles surrounding the walls of interior design. This mosque was built between 1609 and 1616 years, during the rule of Ahmed I.

Hagia Sophia, often referred to as the eighth wonder of the World, is easily one of Istanbul’s most impressive sights. It is the second most visited museum in Turkey and attracts over 3 million tourists every year. Another interesting fact about Hagia Sophia is that it was the largest church in the world for about 900 years until the Seville Cathedral of Spain was completed in 1520.

After seeing these two mosques, we went to visit the Basilica Cistern, which is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city. The cistern, located 150 meters southwest of the Hagia Sophia, was built in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I.

Then we walked around the city for a bit and saw other small mosques and interesting buildings.

We finalized our mini-tour in the Grand Bazaar, before heading back to the hotel, to go back to the airport. In operation since 1461, the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul is one of the oldest and largest shielded markets in the world. It is a shopper’s paradise with over 5,000 shops and 60 streets, which attract over 300,000 visitors daily. The Grand Bazaar was the world’s most visited tourist attraction in 2014 with 91,250,000 visitors annually.


 

MIAMI (USA)

Facts about the city:

Miami is the cruise capital of the world. The large seaport city of Miami has the world’s busiest cruise port.

Miami Beach is known as America’s Riviera and the Latin Hollywood. More than 70% of the population comes from Cuba and other countries from Latin America and you can hear Spanish everywhere you go!

Miami was once a mangrove swamp and the land we now know was mostly man made. As a result, some of the beaches need to be replenished with sand regularly.

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After 13 hours on a plane, we finally arrived in Miami, Florida (USA). It was my first time in the land of Uncle Sam and from the very beginning I felt like I was in a movie. At the airport, they easily let me in, as I am European. I just had to pay for the ESTA online, no need for Visa.

Alejandro’s parents and brother (Arturo) were there at the airport, waiting for us. I was super excited to finally meet them, as Alejandro and I have been together for almost two years and so far I could only see them through the phone. They seemed super nice and friendly from the very beginning and I really felt at home with them 🙂

We took a taxi to Arturo’s place. He’s living in a very nice neighborhood, with the typical american houses, with nice porches and front gardens. Since it was Christmas season, all the houses were very well decorated with lights and festive stuff. His house was very nice and even had a back terrace with a view to a lake.

On our first day in Miami we went to a place called Knaus Berry Farm. We thought that this was an Amish farm/shop, as many people do as well. The folks who run the farm look Amish, with bonnets, long beards and plain cotton clothes. However, they are members of the German-origin Church of the Brethren, often called Dunkers because they believe in full-immersion baptism. Even though they are not Amish, they do produce some of the finest fresh baked goods ever.

In the right season, Knaus Berry Farm is one of the few u-pick strawberry farms left in South Florida. It also offers u-pick tomatoes, and variety of other locally grown vegetables. This means you can go and pick your own vegetables and fruits from the ground.

The item that causes those long lines to form out front – from early morning until they close at sundown – is their world famous sticky cinnamon rolls. We had to wait in the queue for a while, but it was worth it. We bought there some cinnamon rolls, pecan rolls, cheesecake and bread. The milkshakes are amazing there as well. We bought a pumpkin milkshake and I really think it was the best milkshake I’ve ever tried in my life!

In that same day we went to the Everglades National Park. The Everglades is the largest tropical wilderness park in the United States. Unless you have a boat, you can only visit a fraction of the park, since the Everglades are a network of wetlands and forests fed by a river. The park is home to manatees, American crocodiles, a huge number of birds, and even panthers. This fragile ecosystem is listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and it is an International Biosphere Reserve.

We did a mini tour inside the park, where a guide explained us everything about alligators, turtles and snakes. Then we went on an Airboat Tour across the swamps, where we could spot more alligators in the water. It was raining a lot, but it actually felt very nice to feel the clean water running down our faces. It was liberating!

Miami is one of the world’s greatest and most iconic tourist destinations – thanks to its sub tropical climate, pristine beaches and relaxed ambiance. I took only winter clothes with me, but the breeze was very warm and wet. So warm we even went to the beach – to the worldwide famous Miami Beach!

Many celebrities visit Miami Beach every day. This may be because it’s not only just a few miles from South Beach, but it is a little less than two hours from the luxurious city of Palm Beach. There are more than 800 buildings that feature Art Deco architecture in Miami Beach. This makes it the largest collection of this type of architecture in the entire world.

Miami Beach is one of the few man-made islands in the United States. It was once a desolate coconut grove plantation. It is also a very diverse place. It is estimated that there are at least 150 ethnicities as well as over 60 different languages spoken there. When visiting Miami Beach it doesn’t matter what race you are or what language you speak, you will probably find someone who speaks the same language as you.

The beach is exactly as I expected it to be, just like in the movies and TV series. You can expect to see fit people doing exercise and playing sports at the beach, good looking girls in bikinis, luxurious cars cruising down the Ocean Drive avenue and over the top bars right in front of the beach. The weather was good so we even had the chance to go for a quick swim at the beach.

Miami is a complex city and has this beachy-relaxed side, but also a cosmopolitan side. The Downtown has lots of skyscrapers. At night we went to see the famous Miami Port and went to a shopping center at open air called Bayside. There we saw Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., the company from the movie Forrest Gump. We even took pictures outside, in his famous bench.

On our last day in Miami, we also went to an artistic neighborhood called Wynwood and visited Wynwood Walls. This place is a unique outdoor destination featuring huge, colorful street murals by artists from around the globe.

Open to the public, free of charge, the Wynwood Walls was established in 2009 by the legendary placemaker and visionary Tony Goldman as an outdoor museum of international street art.


 

ORLANDO (USA)

Facts about the city:

Tons of films are shot in Orlando. The Waterboy, Days of Thunder, Parenthood, Transformers, Apollo 13, Armageddon, 2 Fast 2 Furious, Magic Mike, Sydney White, My Girl and Ocean’s 11 all had scenes shot here.

Orlando is home to more than 100 lakes, many of which are the result of sinkholes.

Orlando is the ‘Theme Park Capital of the World’, with theme parks like Disney Magic Kingdom, Universal Studios, Universal’s Island of Adventure, Busch Gardens Tampa, Legoland Florida, and SeaWorld.

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We took a Megabus bus to go from Miami to Orlando, and in Orlando we rented a car to make it easier to move around. The bus ticket costed us around $17 per person. The five of us stayed in a 4-bed room at Orlando Continental Plaza Hotel. Arturo paid for our stay – thanks Arturo 🙂

We went to two amusement parks in Orlando – Universal’s Island of Adventure and Universal Studios. We didn’t get the chance to go to Disney Magic Kingdom. I cannot complain at all, since Arturo also got us free tickets to go to these two parks, as he has a friend that works there.

Universal’s Island of Adventure opened on May 28, 1999. In 2013, this theme park hosted approximately 8.1 million guests, ranking it seventh among United States parks and eleventh worldwide.

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We entered the park and went to Marvel Super Hero Island. There, we went for a ride on Hulk’s roller coaster. Then we visited the Spider Man attraction, a motion-based ride, combining 3-D film, ride movement, and special effects. The ride takes place in New York City and since it was the first ride I experienced of this kind on that day, so close to reality, it really blew my mind away!

After that, we went to the Jurassic Park attraction, where you get a bit wet at the end. This scenic water cruise starts out innocently enough. You’re gliding along in your raft, watching a baby stegosaurus and its mother share a moment. When out of nowhere, you’re bumped off course and thrust into the ominous “restricted area” of Jurassic Park. This is where they keep the dangerous creatures. Your only possible escape is going down a big waterfall.

After this wet adventure, we entered the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. It opened at Universal’s Island of Adventures in 2010. Disney had the rights to Harry Potter first, but sources say J. K. Rowling went with Universal for better collaboration. Hogwarts and Hogsmeade are located in this park.

We went inside Hogwarts and made our way down the familiar passageways, visited iconic locations such as Dumbledore’s office, the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, the Gryffindor common room, etc. In this ride, we flew above the castle grounds as joined Harry Potter on an unforgettably thrilling adventure, coming face-to-face with an array of magical creatures and even playing Quiddich. This amazing attraction uses groundbreaking, state-of-the-art technology to create a one-of-a-kind ride. Amazing!

Then we visited Hogsmeade, with all its famous shops. We drank butter beer and went to Ollivanders, to see if I would be the chosen one for a free magic wand (they always choose one person from the crowd from each show). These wands can also be bought, but are quite expensive, since they are interactive wands and let you ‘spell’ casts at several things around Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade.

After Hogsmeade, there’s the famous King’s Cross station. There, we took the famous train – Hogwarts Express – that connects both parks  (Island of Adventure and Universal Studios). The ‘Wizarding World of Harry Potter’ continues in this second amusement park.

At Universal Studios, we entered the wizard’s bank, Gringott’s, beneath the massive fire-breathing dragon at the far end of Diagon Alley. Inside, we walked through the bank’s grand marble lobby and saw the goblins at work. Then, we took a 5D journey through cavernous passageways that lead deep underground as you climb aboard this mind-blowing, multi-dimensional thrill ride. Along the way we encountered Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Then, we had to evade the wrath of malicious villains Voldemort and Bellatrix, as well as trolls and other creatures.

Gringott’s is one of the most recent attractions of the park and it was definitely one of my favorites. This enchanted world of Harry Potter on both Universal parks is reported to have cost more than half-a-billion dollars.

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Inside Universal Studios, there’s Springfield, Home of Simpsons. It was pretty cool seeing all the characters and places from this animated TV show.

Another thing I really liked in this park was the huge roller coaster they have there, called Rockit! It has a height of 51 m, a length of 1,200 m, and a top speed of 105 km/h.

It was super scary but thrilling to go on this roller coaster! It was definitely the biggest one I’ve ever been on. I really liked the fact that you can choose songs like ‘Born to be Wild’, ‘Rollin’ or ‘Gimme all your Lovin’ to listen to while you’re on that crazy ride! You have 7 seconds to select the song and then you can hear it from the speakers they placed close to your head. It was so cool I even went twice!

We went inside many other rides, like Shrek, Jimmy Fallon, Men in Black, etc. After all the excitement, at the end of the day we rested a bit watching the parade, with all the famous characters.

It was an amazing day. Two amusement parks in one day! I still don’t know how we had the energy to do all that. I think it’s so cool that Alejandro’s parents came with us and did pretty much everything (apart from the roller coasters) with us! My mom wouldn’t last two hours 😉

On our second day in Orlando, we went to this very typical american all-you-can-eat restaurant called Golden Corral. It’s amazing how you pay around $10 and can stay there all day and eat everything. I would be super fat if I lived in the US for sure.

We also stopped by Hulk’s Hogan shop, the famous mustached-wrestler from WWE. We also saw two very unusual houses – Ripley (a leaned house) and Wonderworks (a house that is upside down). We didn’t go inside any of these houses, but just seeing them from outside is quite a show already.

Then we wanted to get close to NASA and Kennedy Space Center. It was a bit too expensive, so we decided not to go inside. However, since we were in the area, we decided to explore the Canaveral Cape and saw the SpaceX launch complex. They design, manufacture and launch advanced rockets and spacecraft there.

After trying to (unluckily) see any rockets, we headed out to Cocoa Beach, a very famous beach in the area. A historic landmark on Florida’s Space Coast, the world-famous Westgate Cocoa Beach Pier stretches 800 feet over the Atlantic Ocean and is home to restaurants, bars, gift shops and live musical entertainment. It is a nice place for surfers as well. “I Dream of Jeannie” was set in Cocoa Beach and the most famous surfer in the world — Kelly Slater — is from Cocoa Beach.

At night, since we didn’t manage to go to Disney, at least we went to Downtown Disney. Downtown Disney, now known as Disney Springs, is an open shopping, dining, and entertainment venue. You do not need any pass or ticket to go there and shop or eat and it is totally worth a visit.


 

ATLANTA (USA)

Facts about the city:

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Atlanta is one of only two cities in the world to be the home of two Nobel Peace Prize winners – both Jimmy Carter and Martin Luther King, Jr. called Atlanta home.

It has the busiest airport in the world. The terminal is as big as 45 football fields.

Gone with the Wind was written and set in Atlanta. In fact, Atlanta is becoming the new Hollywood: The Hunger GamesZombielandDriving Miss DaisyThe Walking DeadCaptain America: Civil WarThe Vampire DiariesInsurgentFurious 7, etc.

We took another Megabus bus from Orlando to Atlanta. The bus ticket costed us around $31 per person. Alejandro and Arturo went to drop off the car that we had rented in Orlando, took too long to get back and missed the bus! I had stayed with Alejandro’s parents close to the bus stop, so the three of us managed to take it. We took a night bus, while Alejandro and Arturo only got to Atlanta the next day, in the afternoon.

I got to meet Alejandro’s sister – Adriana, her kids – Annette and Amy, and her husband – Charbel. They all welcomed me very well and showed me their house, where we spent most of the time.

We didn’t sleep there though, we rented an apartment for Alejandro, Arturo and I, and only slept at Adriana’s place on Christmas eve. We stayed at Suburban Extender Stay and shared the cost of the apartment between the three of us – I paid around $226.

In Atlanta we rented Charbel’s car, as he did a special price – we shared the cost and I paid $79. For approximately $70 we decided to buy the City Pass to visit several attractions in Atlanta. With this pass you can get access to Georgia Aquarium, World of Coca Cola, CNN Studio Tours, Zoo Atlanta OR National Center for Civil and Human Rights, and Fernbank Museum of Natural History OR College Football Hall of Fame.

The Georgia Aquarium houses more than a hundred thousand animals and represents several thousand species, all of which reside in 38 millions liters of marine and salt water. It was the largest aquarium in the world from its opening in 2005 until 2012, when it was surpassed by Marine Life Park in Singapore.

Originally intended as a patent medicine, Coca-Cola was invented in 1886 by Atlanta pharmacist John Pemberton. The World of Coca-Cola is a museum, showcasing the history of The Coca-Cola Company. The 81,000-square-meter complex opened to the public on May 24, 2007.

Centennial Olympic Park is a public park located in downtown Atlanta. It was built by the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) as part of the infrastructure improvements for the 1996 Summer Olympics.

CNN’s global headquarter is in Atlanta. We did the CNN Studio Tour.

The Zoo Atlanta was founded in 1889, when businessman George V. Gress purchased a bankrupt traveling circus and donated the animals to the city of Atlanta. The Zoo offers memorable close encounters with more than 1,000 animals from around the world, like giant pandas, apes, flamingos, etc.

Arturo, Alejandro and I went for a quick visit to Kennesaw Mountain Park. Unfortunately, the visitors center was closed that day and we didn’t have much time, so we just took some pictures at the entrance. This national park preserves a Civil War battleground of the Atlanta Campaign, where over 67,000 soldiers died.

We also went with the whole family to Amicalola Falls State Park. The park is home to Amicalola Falls, a 222 meters waterfall, the highest in Georgia.

In that same day, later on, we also went to visit a very cute town called Dahlonega. Dahlonega is rich in culture and charm and has a beautifully preserved downtown historic district.

While we were in Atlanta, we decided to go with Charbel to watch some live sports, since it’s something we can’t do in Malta. First, we went to a Hockey game: Atlanta Gladiators vs Jacksonville IceMen, at Infinite Energy Center. They lost, but the game and the atmosphere was amazing, and I even got the chance to take a picture with the mascot.

We also went to a Basket game with Charbel: Atlanta Hawks vs Indiana Pacers, at the State Farm Arena. This stadium was amazing! When they introduce the players, in the beginning of the game, I really felt like I was in a different dimension. It is really quite a show! Loved it. Also, the entertainment shows they have during the breaks and a show on their own! From kiss cams, to people performing acrobatics, they really know how to keep viewers entertained.

We visited Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park. This park consists of several buildings in Atlanta, including Martin Luther King Jr.’s boyhood home and the original Ebenezer Baptist Church, the church where King was baptized and both him and his father were pastors.

In 1977, a memorial tomb was dedicated to Martin Luther King. His remains were moved to the tomb, on a plaza between the center and the church. King’s gravesite and a reflecting pool are located next to Freedom Hall. After her death, Mrs. King was interred with her husband on February 7, 2006. An eternal flame is located nearby.

Apart from all these cultural activities, we spent some quality time as a family at Adriana’s place as well. In one of the days we went bowling and it was super fun. Christmas was also very very nice, all together, preparing and eating Venezuelan food. I felt blessed to have the chance to know this family, that is now my family as well 🙂 I hope I get to see them again soon!

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From Brazil with love

In the summer of 2015 I went with a friend to Brazil. First we visited the north: Recife, Olinda and Porto de Galinhas. Then, we flew to the most beautiful city ever, Rio de Janeiro.

RECIFE

Facts about the city:

In Recife they dance Frevo, not Samba. Frevo is a rhythm born in Recife, and that’s what you’ll see people dancing during Carnival. Frevo was included on the UNESCO’s list of intangible heritage.

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First we visited Recife, in the Northeast of Brazil. Me and Rita went there to visit Claudia, a former college classmate. Claudia went to Brazil to study there and ended up staying there for good, because her family is from Recife. Her house is super nice, we felt like we were right in the middle of the jungle, with that abundant vegetation, with monkeys roaming the electric cables and with that tropical climate, super humid and hot. We hated that weather, it seems we can’t even breathe.

Recife is a city that is below the sea level and thank God we didn’t witness a terrible flood that stroke the city a few days before our trip. It is a city full of canals and therefore is easily flooded. The sea there is not very good there because you are not allowed to swim since there are some sharks. We went out for drinks twice in a bar near Claudia’s house.

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What shocked me and Rita the most is the way they go out in Brazil at night. The boys are really confident and the girls are really sluts. We also went out in a bar and in a nightclub with Cláudia’s friends. In the nightclub I drank a lot and let some boys pull me to dance, but Rita helped me to send them away when they got annoying. By the end of the night we were the only ones who were not kissing anyone.

Claudia’s brother already took hundreds of girls to motels, disgusting! Even Claudia was there kissing a random boy. Another thing that is different there is the fact that the music is almost only sertanejo, and that they play it live in clubs with covers bands, which does not happen in Portugal.

In one of the days we stayed there Claudia showed us Recife. We went to the Marco Zero square and to a museum there called Caixa Cultural Recife and then we went to see the Recife Antigo (old Recife). Recife Antigo consists of the initial Portuguese settlement in the 16th century around the port.

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We were also in a rock bar, Rock & Ribs, and went to have dinner at Cláudia’s cousin’s place. I loved Abel, he is very nice.

We went to the Cais do Sertão museum. Inaugurated in 2014, this bold new museum highlights the culture of the sertão, especially as it relates to the godfather of forró music, Luiz Gonzaga, who was a major player not only in bringing the music of the region to national prominence but the culture as well. This museum also talks about the history of Recife, the Portuguese occupation, frevo music, etc.

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We went to the two main shopping malls in the city, both with panoramic views of the canals and bridges of the city. The best part was when we did a catamaran boat tour around the city, it was beautiful.

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We took this opportunity to eat different things: graviola, cajá, mamão, tapioca (prepared by Cláudia’s mom), castanha de caju, bolinhos de goma, açaí, etc. We were addicted to Paçoquita, which is a peanut butter candy.


PORTO DE GALINHAS

Facts about the city:

The town was called Porto Rico (Rich Port) until 1850 when it became a place where people traded slaves to work in the plantations of sugar cane. To evade the control of the illegal transaction, slaves were transported together with guineafowl and passwords were created by traffickers (Portuguese: “Tem galinha nova no porto” – “There are new chickens in the port”), hence the origin of the name.

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In one of the days we were in Recife, we went with Claudia and her mother to visit Porto de Galinhas. The beach of Porto de Galinhas, 60 kilometers south of Recife has been repeatedly awarded the title of best beach in Brazil and has drawn many tourists.

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That place is heavenly! Porto de Galinhas beach is a major tourist destination and it is famous for its bright-water beaches and the natural pools.

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The water there is hot even in winter, but in summer it reaches 28 degrees! Claudia and I took a swim and it felt amazing. The city center is also nice, with craft shops and souvenirs, with chickens statues and images everywhere. I liked it!


OLINDA

Facts about the city:

Pernambuco was a Portuguese colony. While Recife had port functions, Olinda was the capital. However, in 1630 the Dutch invaded this area and set Olinda partially on fire. Recife became the seat of the Dutch government and Olinda lost his importance. Olinda is still one of the best-preserved colonial cities in Brazil and its historic town center considered a world heritage site by UNESCO.

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Still during our stay in Recife, we went with Cláudia and her cousin, Abel, to visit the city of Olinda. Olinda has a great connection to Portugal, with the azulejos (tiles) and the cute churches. We visited some of them: Igreja da Se, Convento de S. Francisco, etc.

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We also used a lift to go up to a lookout point where we could enjoy a beautiful view of Recife on the other side.

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We visited street markets and more craft shops. I ate a delicious tapioca there. Too bad we did not go there for the Carnival, it is super famous there.


RIO DE JANEIRO

Facts about the city:

According to tradition, Rio de Janeiro was first visited in January 1502 by Portuguese explorers, who believed the bay they encountered (now called Guanabara Bay) was the mouth of a river. They named the area named Rio de Janeiro, “River of January.”

There are more than 1,000 favelas (slums) in Rio and almost one fourth of Cariocas (nickname of the locals) live in them. Rio’s residents have been living in favelas since the end of the 19th century, being the most affordable housing option. It was there, in the favelas, that former African slaves first created the music style we now know as samba. Nowadays, most of the city’s renowned samba schools that compete in the world’s most famous Carnival parade are located in favelas.

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After all this, we went to visit Rio de Janeiro, the famous cidade maravilhosa (marvelous city). Well, loveeeed it! Rita’s cousin, who lives in Rio and is a taxi driver, picked us up at the airport and then showed us around the city. First, we visited the favela where he lives and we met Rita’s family. Afterwards, we went to Maracanã stadium. The stadium was opened in 1950 to host the FIFA World Cup.

Then we went to Copacabana beach. There, at the Copacabana Palace, Rita was hoping to see some of the Globo’s famous actors, but nothing (btw, we also saw Globo and Projac, where they shoot the famous Brazilian soap operas). Back in Copacabana, we went to a street market and bought some souvenirs. The people of Rio are very friendly and cheerful, gave me the urge to go and live there!

Next we went to our hotel which is the best hotel I have stayed at in my entire life! Right on the calçadão, on the Ipanema Beach line! It is called Best Western Sol Ipanema Hotel and is located on Avenida Vieira Souto. What a luxury!! We had gym and hotel at the top of the hotel, overlooking the beach and Morro dos Dois Irmaos (two mountains that rise at the western end of the beach). We paid x for x nights.

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The people at the hotel were also super friendly. Our hotel was super comfortable and with a magnificent view, like a postcard. We always fell asleep with the sound of the waves. The next day we had a luxury breakfast at the hotel and spent the morning strolling down the promenade from Leblon beach to Ipanema beach.

The Leblon beach is known for its elegant development and its social life. Two mountains called the Dois Irmãos rise at the western end of the beach, which is divided into segments delineated by postos, or lifeguard towers. In Ipanema beach there’s usually a lot of people playing football, volleyball and footvolley. Beer is sold everywhere, along with the traditional cachaça.

We finished our walk in Pedra do Arpoador. This is a rock located between Ipanema and Copacabana. During some time around midsummer it is possible to see the sun setting over the sea from Arpoador, a rare event on the generally eastward-facing Brazilian coast. On these occasions crowds gather around the place and cheer when the sun disappears.

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This place is a natural viewpoint with giant rocks and a beautiful sunset view to Morro dos Dois Irmãos and Favela do Vidigal. Beautiful! Then we went for a walk to see the shops in the center of Rio de Janeiro. We went to Girl from Ipanema bar, to Vinicius de Moraes Bar, we went to McDonalds (they use names like McLanche Feliz or the slogan Amo tudo Isso). At the end of the day we went for a swim in our hotel’s pool.

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The next day was awesome. Rita’s cousin came to pick us up in the taxi and took us to Cristo Rei. Before Cristo Rei, we went up to Mirante Dona Marta, with the best possible view possible for Pão de Açúcar! This lookout offers a spectacular view of the city. On one side you can see the Guanabara Bay, Niterói and the mountains of the Serrana region in the background. On the other side, next to the heliport, one can see the Lagoa and the South Zone, besides the Christ statue. This viewpoint has one of the most perfect angles of the city to take photos. I took some of my favorite photos of the trip there.

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This day was very hot, which was great. After that, we climbed up 700 metres to reach the top of Monte Corcovado, in the Tijuca Forest National Park, in some vans. Finally, we reached the Cristo Rei (Christ the Redeemer) statue! 😀 Well, what an amazing place!! There are no words to describe it… It was the most beautiful place I have ever visited in my life.

Constructed between 1922 and 1931, the statue is 30m tall, excluding its 8m pedestal. A symbol of Christianity across the world, the statue has also become a cultural icon of both Rio de Janeiro and Brazil, and is listed as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. What a breathtaking view! Even the crowd of tourists like us, trying to take a thousand photos, did not take away the charm. I’m glad I went there with Rita, I really like her. After the photos we stayed there for a while trying to absorb the landscape.

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Rita’s cousin took us through Floresta da Tijuca and Barra da Tijuca. We had lunch at a restaurant and in the afternoon we went to the Botanical Gardens and Praia da Barra. Barra da Tijuca is believed to be the safest of Rio’s upper-class neighborhoods because of its lack of favelas and plentiful private and public security. Barra da Tijuca neighborhood is well known for being the home of celebrities and soccer stars.

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Then we passed the house of Roberto Carlos in Urca, we went to Morro da Urca, Praia Vermelha and Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf mountain). Pão de Açúcar is amazing! Rising 396m above the harbor, its name is said to refer to its resemblance to the traditional shape of concentrated refined loaf sugar. It is terrifying to get on its cableway (bondinho) because it shakes a lot, but the sight from the two or three places where we stopped is almost as perfect as the view from the Christ. It’s amazing! It was a fantastic day.

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The next day was amazing too. We booked a guided tour with a private guide, to show us the historic center of Rio, because we were afraid to go there alone. The guide was a super friendly African guy. First he took us by car to the neighborhood and favela of Santa Teresa.

Then we went to Escadaria de Selaron (Selaron Steps), which is a set of world-famous steps create by the Cilean-born artist Jorge Selarón, with donated tiles from all over the world. I’ve been looking for tiles from Portugal and Porto and found a lot! I had no idea. There are over 2000 tiles collected from over 60 countries around the world.

In 1990, Selarón began renovating dilapidated steps that ran along the front of his house. At first, neighbors mocked him for his choice of colors as he covered the steps in fragments of blue, green and yellow tiles – the colors of the Brazilian flag. It started out as a side-project to his main passion, painting, but soon became an obsession. He found he was constantly out of money, so Selarón sold paintings to fund his work. It was long and exhausting work but he continued on and eventually covered the entire set of steps in tiles, ceramics and mirrors.

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Then we went to the historical center, with some trace elements of the Portuguese influence, in a museum that spoke about the Portuguese and our empire there, in the House of Carmen Miranda, in the Candelaria Church, in the cultural center, in Arcos da Lapa (the aqueduct serves as a bridge for a popular tram that connects the city center with the Santa Teresa favela uphill), in the cylindrical Cathedral, etc.

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At the end of the tour we went to eat açaí and the guide brought us back to the hotel by metro. In the afternoon we went to say goodbye to the Calçadão, we went to the beach, drank coconut water, took photos with the statue of Tom Jobim and enjoyed the wonderful view of those beaches for the last time.

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We were sitting on a bench that had the quote: Pare aqui. Aprecie a vida por um minuto e SORRIA – Stop here. Appreciate life for one minute and smile. Isn’t it beautiful? 🙂

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