My first visit to Brazil in 2004 began a love affair with the country and its culture that has required return trips.
My first trip was to magical Salvador de Bahia in the northeast where music is everywhere and the vibe is relaxed and super fun. Subsequent trips took me to to Recife (above) to study with a yogi, the urban centers of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, and the island city of Florianopolis where my Portuguese teacher (from Brooklyn) spent 2007-2008.
Brazil was wilder than I could have imagined: the food was strange and intriguing, the people were warm and funny; the country had a rich, dark history and could be fantastically beautiful.
But at almost 5,000 miles from New York, Brazil is not a weekend destination. For my last trip, in 2007, I paid with points—otherwise the ticket would have been around $1300 US.
This year, a friend in Rio (who had lived in New York until 2002) tipped me off about cheap airfares. Through BACC.com, a company that specializes in travel to Brazil, I got a ticket to Rio for $361 US (with taxes, $474) just 8 days before departure. Since this kind of bargain is so rare (probably a product of the swine flu scare), I hustled to clear my schedule and get on a plane. (Which, by the way, I almost missed with the slow subway connections and my obsessive avoidance of downtime at the airport!)
It’s pretty much impossible to get a ticket that cheap–and yet I was anxious. I’m supposed to be saving money, not spending! And even as a great deal, $500 is still $500.
But I went. Suddenly—almost absurdly fast—I was in Rio! Damp stone walls, erratic drivers, miles and miles and miles of favelas (shantytowns), men in long shorts and flip flops, that languid walking pace, people sitting in botecos (little bars with finger foods), drinking choppe (draft beer)–and of course, the incredible beach.
I needed an afternoon nap to shake off the flight. For dinner, we went down to Copacobana to an Italian place, Trattoria, whose special was “Obama Spaghetti with Mussels!” We had golden sole with garlic sauce, and rice cut with greens, a bottle of wine. The exchange rate is just better than 2:1 right now, and in the end my friend paid. Very frugal!
The next night I paid. We went to a place called Galeto, a counter-style rotisserie, also in Copacobana, open into the street, where you eat roast chicken (galinho is a rooster). There was a line. But when we finally got a stool at the “S”-shaped counter, we had a plate of galeto (two small cut-up chickens), and other plates of salad, rice with greens, and farofa (toasted manioc meal) with egg. And very cold Bohemie beers. Delicious! All served by a serious, licensed roaster in a vest and glasses. $20 for two.
Although it’s fall there, we had some hot and sunny days. The day after my arrival was in the high 80s and the beaches were packed—an incredible variety of people swam, surfed, read, napped, played volley ball and paddle ball. It was easy to spot the tourists–they just didn’t look as comfortable in their skin as the locals. The constant stream of vendors made sure you were never without anything, from ice cream to beer to hot cheese (the hot-cheese guys carry around a little brickette-powered oven). I didn’t buy anything except a fresh coconut for the water (coco gelado) overpriced at $1.50, but still worth the experience.
On Sunday I went up to the hill-top neighborhood of Santa Teresa, an artists and ex-pat community far from the beach throngs below. There, I met friends of friends for afternoon choppe and a workout of my rusty Portuguese. Someone bought a litre bottle of beer and all of us had little cups from the bar, then, people who joined the conversation topped up our glasses as is customary. It’s easy to drink a lot in a short time, with all the comings and goings. Especially when you’re nervously covering up your language skills….
From the bar, Bar do Mineiro, I was invited to a lunch party, a big spread of traditional feijoada, at a nearby house poised on the side of a cliff. Monkeys swung in the trees, kids played in the pool, and adults from Brazil, Germany, Argentina and the US drank on the vast stone veranda that overlooked the city. The food never stopped coming–rice, beans, 5 kinds of meat, thinly cut cooked greens, farofa, fired aipim, and then three kinds of dessert. A tour of the enormous, 4-floor house made me wonder if perhaps I should give up my frugal ways and try to live more decadently…
At the end of the afternoon, after a stroll down the cobble-stoned streets in the lowering sun, I stopped with a new friend for a coffee and we listed to a trio play chorro, a melancholy music with a sweet lilt to it. I recognized many of the songs as traditional favorites. I bought my friend his espresso, my only expense of the day.
Bargain hunting, friends in the know, and the ability to leave at a moment’s notice are all key moves for the frugal traveler to South America.
Travel organizations will often tout themselves as experts only to serve up higher fares than you can find yourself on Orbitz, Expedia, Travelocity, or airlines’ sites. So ask friends and acquaintances who frequently travel to your dream destination where to shop for low fares. Often, they will tip you off about which companies to trust and which to avoid—and what have changed since the last time you went.
Check Travelocity or Orbitz first, then check out the airlines that they list as offering low fares. Often, Delta or United or American Airlines‘ prices are slightly lower still. And, buying tickets directly from the airline means the tickets are more flexible—easier to upgrade or change if necessary. Once you buy from outfits such as Orbitz, you can get locked in without easy or affordable ways out.
Always fly direct unless you have lots of time to spare.
Going when the low fare is offered is also a help. True, because my trip was last minute, I could only secure a week away from work. But, with a friend picking me up at the airport, a free place to stay, and a 2:1 exchange rate in my favor, the trip was doable. And an affordable week on the beaches of Copacobana and Impanema is something I will never turn down. Nor should you.