- Trip Notes Brazil Part 1: 10 Years Of Travel And Deal Blogging And A Return To Where It All Began (Published 11/23/14)
- Trip Notes Brazil Part 2: Flying “Private” To Sao Paulo With Miles (Published 2/7/16)
- Trip Notes Brazil Part 3: Iguaçu Falls (Published 4/17/16)
- -rip Notes Brazil Part 4: Rio de Janeiro (Published 5/1/16)
-This trip occurred in October 2014, better late than never, right? I recently posted that Brazil was waiving their $160 Visa fee for Americans that arrive between June 1-September 18, so that was the impetus to continue writing these trip notes. However it’s worth noting that pregnant women and women that are currently trying to become pregnant should postpone travel to most of Central America, South America, and the Caribbean according to the CDC.
I thought I’d never return to Brazil after my 2007 incident, but in the end I loved the language, I loved the people, and we decided to make a family trip of it.
A 10 year anniversary trip to my old stomping grounds. I owe a lot to Brazil. It took incredible divine providence to wind up there and it led me to what I do today for a living, and ultimately it led me to find my wife, but that’s a long story for another time.
Brazilian carrier TAM used to be notoriously stingy with premium class awards. But early in 2014 they started opening their entire first class cabin for award travel. TAM only had 4 seats in the first class, but you were able to use miles for all of them. Then they announced that first class would be eliminated altogether and I knew it was time for a trip. After all, when would be the next chance I’d have to redeem miles to have an entire cabin just just for my family?
So I burned 500,000 USAirways miles for 4 round-trip first class awards on TAM and booked up the entire first class cabin in both directions for myself, my wife Mimi, my son Rafi, and daughter Talia.
Our private first class cabin from Miami-Sao Paulo:
Read more about the trip after the jump:
I would have loved to explore places in Brazil I haven’t been to, like the Panantal, the Amazon (I have a friend who runs Chabad of Manaus), and stunning Fernando de Nanronha. But none of those places are particularly kid-friendly and they would all require a ton of travel. So we stuck with Sao Paulo, Iguaçu Falls, and Rio de Janeiro.
Sao Paulo isn’t exactly a must-see city for tourists, but with our flight arriving on Thursday morning it made a good base for Shabbos.
To fly from Sao Paulo to Iguaçu to Rio would cost $720 per person. Instead I used 25,000 Delta miles for myself and Mimi for those flights on Brazilian carrier GOL. At the time GOL’s Portuguese site had a kids fly free promotion, but when I tried to book just the kids on the GOL site it was charging me an unaccompanied minor fee. So I chatted with them online and they set up the free tickets for the kids, I just had to call in with the reservation number to pay a few dollars in taxes for the kids.
I tried to book a flight from Sao Paulo-Iguaçu-Rio-Sao Paulo as a Delta stopover award (a free stopover was still allowed at the time) but it kept pricing out at 37.5K miles and no agent was willing to overrule the computer. So we just used 25K Delta miles for the Sao Paulo-Iguaçu and Iguaçu -Rio flights as it wasn’t worth paying an extra 12.5K miles for the Rio-Sao Paulo flight. Flights from Rio to Sao Paulo on GOL were just $35 for adults and a few dollars in taxes for the kids.
Getting to Brazil as an American citizen is no easy feat. They charge a $160 reciprocity fee. But worse than that, as a Clevelander it seemed that I might have to actually fly to Washington DC and buy money orders from USPS to apply for a visa. I used to ask for money orders when selling beanie babies on eBay as a 13 year old in the pre-Paypal days, but I had no idea money orders had a real purpose in 2014 other than to manufacture spend to earn miles 😀
Luckily the good folks over at Allied Passport took all of the hassles out of the visa process. They told me exactly what info they needed, charged my credit card for the fees, and took care of all of the legwork. I’d use them again in a heartbeat the next time I need a visa.
Finally it was go-time. I was a bit nervous to return to Brazil, but excited at the same time. And I was definitely excited to have our own private first class cabin on the plane.
We took off from Cleveland on Tuesday evening for Miami. There were no connecting flights to Brazil available that night so we took an Uber from the airport and stayed at the W South Beach for one night. As an SPG Platinum member we were upgraded to a Mega Suite.
Talia catching some zzz’s from Cleveland to Miami:
The Mega Suite would be wonderful without kids, but with 2 kids it was a bit of a challenge compared to their regular suites. It consists of a very large combined bedroom and living room, but without any wall separating the bedroom from living room.
The awesome part of the suite is that it has a rooftop! A spiral staircase goes up from the bedroom to the rooftop that has a large dining room table, a small private plunge pool, and an outdoor shower.
Rooftop dining room:
Rooftop plunge pool:
View from rooftop :
Platinum amenity in room:
Rare Bistro was closed due to damage at the time and Chops (which we loved in June 2014) mysteriously closed as well. Kosh didn’t pick up their phone, so we had Uber deliver us food from Harbour Grill. I’ve used Uber to deliver food in several cities and it’s always been a pleasure.
Smoked short ribs were completely inedible (1/10). I’m not the only one to feel that way.
The supreme burger was pretty good though (7.5/10):
Lemon tart wasn’t amazing, but was a decent version of the dish (6/10):
Note to self: It should be obvious, but tempura sushi rolls are best consumed on premises…
A nice feature of the W is the excellent secondary pool. The primary pool area was always crowded, but Rafi and I swam in the secondary pool (to the left of the primary pool) for hours and there was not a soul around. Go figure!
We ordered a delicious lunch from Shemtov’s ($5 for delivery to the W) and food for the plane from Harbour Grill once again via Uber.
Beach in front of the W:
“Secondary” pool at the W:
Excellent eggplant parm (8.5/10) from Shemtov’s:
Very good ravioli (7/10) from Shemtov’s:
A delicious Portobello panini (8/10) from Shemtov’s:
Frozen Macchiatos from Shemtov’s are always amazing (9/10):
TAM provided complimentary chauffeur service to the airport as we were flying in first class and they picked us up in a Suburban 3 hours before flight time:
At the Miami airport an agent was waiting for us when our chauffeur pulled up to the curb and she escorted us all the way from check-in to the lounge. In preparation for the end of first class, TAM had already closed first class lounges, so we were brought to the business class lounge where they had some kosher items like Kettle chips and Granola bars.
The agent gave us the option of boarding before everyone or after everyone.
After spending some time in the lounge, the same agent picked us up from the lounge and brought us to the plane before general boarding to give us time to settle in. The TAM first class ground service in Miami was absolutely top-notch.
There is only a single row in first class but each seat also has an ottoman in front of it, which gives it a really cozy living room feel. We were given pajamas, slippers, and amenity kits, and then the flight attendants closed the curtains behind and in front of us to truly give our family as close to a private jet experience as we’ll probably ever have.
It. Was. Awesome.
When you fly with 2 kids in first class you’re always nervous about whether the kids will go to sleep easily or if they’ll cause a ruckus. Nothing worse than getting the glare from other passengers who feel they deserve a kid-free flight.
But this was a dream come true. There was nobody to glare at us if the kids were fussy! The entire cabin was just for us!
Service was excellent as you would expect when there are 2 flight attendants just serving 4 seats, though the audio visual system was broken for the entire flight. Disappointing, but on the plus side, that meant we’d have one less thing distracting us from sleeping, so it actually worked out for the best.
We did indeed have a bit of a hard time getting Rafi to fall asleep, but then again that’s the beauty of having what’s practically a living room as your private cabin, nobody was bothered by his shenanigans. Mimi thought to put the eye-shade from the amenity kit on him and he went quickly to sleep.
The kosher meal, as usual for flights from US, was inedible. Luckily we had burgers from Harbour Grill that we double-wrapped and the flight attendants were more than happy to heat them up for us. Most airlines are willing to do this. Even the ones that aren’t (Cathay Pacific, I’m looking at you!) will typically make an exception if you show them how bad your kosher meals looks. DDF member AJK actually coined a term for this on the forums, BYOK. Truly the only way to go for flights from the US.
A very lackluster first class liquor selection:
A table with dinner for 2, thanks to the ottoman by each seat:
An awful kosher meal:
So we skipped all that and had the flight attendant heat this up instead:
We topped dinner off with a lemon tart and got in as much sleep as we could. The bed was fantastic.
We woke up a few minutes before landing and the flight attendants brought us more inedible food options:
Upon landing we had another escort who told us that despite the fact that our stroller was gate-checked, all strollers were sent to baggage claim. Which meant that we’d have to shlep Talia in her Chicco carseat without the help of the UppaBaby to push it. So the escort helping us with our bags actually came in handy, because we wouldn’t have had enough hands otherwise.
We were escorted to the front of the immigration line and were at baggage claim very quickly. Unfortunately our stroller took over an hour to show up. My only guess is that it was sitting at the gate the whole time…
We took a cab from the airport to the Renaissance Sao Paulo which is within the eruv in the Jardins neighborhood. There are no minivans in Brazil, but we did manage to find a cab big enough to hold all of our luggage and stroller in the trunk. The only Uber options were far too small for us and our bags.
We arrived at the hotel at 9 in the morning. They upgraded us to the Stanford Suite which was located on the 3rd floor and would allow us to walk down the stairs on shabbos. The suite wasn’t ready when we arrived at the hotel, but they gave us the keys to another room next door and we all promptly fell asleep.
Upon waking from our naps our suite was ready.
Renaissance Sao Paulo:
Stanford suite living room with a rollaway for Rafi:
Stanford suite living room:
Stanford suite living room:
Neat feature: The door stays open without a doorstop, why don’t all hotels do that?
We put Talia’s crib in the guest bathroom:
Overall the hotel was fantastic, though staying there for shabbos had its challenges. Even though we were on the “3rd floor” it was more like 7 floors due to unnumbered floors to get to the lobby. There’s also a very steep incline to get to/from the Jewish community in Jardins.
Instead of buying souvenirs on trips, we like to do a photo shoot of the family in front of something local. A sunset photo shoot on a beach in Maui, a shoot in front of a modern art museum in Buenos Aires, photos in front of the mountains and lakes of Banff, they’re all quite precious.
The trick is finding a photographer with reasonable rates that has a good looking portfolio, and will release the full set of images to you.
In Brazil after some google searching, Ana+Rafa fit the bill perfectly. She and an assistant took photos of us for 2 hours in Sao Paulo’s wonderful Ibirapuera park for R$600 (Currently US$147) and we were absolutely thrilled with the results.
The park itself is one of the highlights of the city and well worth a stroll.
Uber in Sao Paulo is inexpensive, but having 2 kids and trying to get around Sao Paulo was difficult to say the least and something we weren’t quite prepared for. Talia’s infant carseat plugged in nicely with our UppaBaby, but that meant having to shlep Rafi’s convertible carseat anywhere we walked after leaving a taxi or Uber.
We thought we’d be able to walk more, but Sao Paulo is not a pedestrian friendly city and especially not stroller friendly. Inclines are extremely steep and many sidewalks just randomly turn into staircases, which makes things very difficult. Walking in the street is borderline suicidal, as SP drivers make NYC drivers seem downright tame. But we persevered as much as we could without having our own car.
For dinner on Thursday night we went to Celedon, a dairy restaurant that had just opened. It was excellent.
Toasted Cheese Flatbreads were very good (7.5/10):
Brazil is famous for their Caipirinha (pronounced Cuh-eye-pa-rinya) and Celedon makes absolutely superb Lime Caipirinha and Passion Fruit Caipirinhas (10/10). I was tipsy and thrilled after both of these:
Delicious fettuccine (8.5/10) and ravioli (9/10):
Fries were pretty good, though could have used a little more seasoning (6.5/10) :
Topped off with a hot brownie and yummy ice cream for dessert (7/10):
Thanks to Marriott Gold status we had lounge access with drinks, fruits, etc. The lounge has windows to view all of Sao Paulo’s endless concrete sprawl:
On Friday we walked the streets of Jardins. In Buenes Aires the main Jewish community, Once (Pronounced Un-say), is a dump. However Sao Paulo’s main Jewish community is in Jardins and the area is the nicest part of the city. We strolled down Rua Oscar Freire in the heart of the Jewish community, which is the Rodeo Drive of Sao Paulo.
Afterward we grabbed a cab over to the other major Jewish community in Higienopolis where we had lunch from Via Babush to pickup some pizza. Sao Paulo pizza shops aren’t very good, but this was ranked as one of the better ones for their pizza.
Alas they only have pizza for dinner, so we ordered other items like Brazilian specialties such as Pao de queijo (cheese bread, 5/10) and Empada de Palmito (Hearts of palm filled pastry, 4/10). I was excited to try them, but they weren’t particularly fresh or great.
Fettuccine alfredo was not great either (4/10):
Fries were well spiced though (7/10):
Mimi had a Caprese salad:
The “Hot Roll” was very good though (8/10). Yes, the roll is listed on the menu as Hot Roll, just don’t expect them to understand it if you say it like that. In Portuguese it’s pronounced “Hotchie-How.” Don’t even ask…it took me the better part of a year until I figured out the whole pronunciation thing.
Their Caipirinha was not good at all (3/10):
Afterward we walked over to Matok, another dairy restaurant in Higienopolis, for some of their delicious soft-serve ice cream (at least it was delicious a decade ago!) But they were already closed by the time we got there.
From there we walked (while awkwardly carrying Rafi’s convertible carseat) to Shopping Higienopolis, a beautiful mall and definitely worth a stroll around if you’re in the area.
When we got back to the hotel Rafi and I took a dip in the pool. Unfortunately it was not particularly clean.
There are places to pickup shabbos food, but we were invited to eat at the Basch family. They had been incredibly friendly to me and my fellow shluchim 10 years earlier and were amazing once again. Their warm hospitality is awesome.
What I didn’t recall is how difficult the walk from the Renaissance to their house was, especially on some of the streets where the sidewalk consists of steps. Unfortunately the hotels in the primary Jewish community are either ridiculously expensive or are pretty dumpy. Still staying there would have made things a lot easier.
We spent a lovely shabbos catching up with old friends at the Chabad Central shul and then trekked back up to our hotel.
With the kids asleep and without any babysitters, we ordered pizza in from Via Babush. It was nothing amazing, but was decent pizza (6.5/10):
Their lemon tart on the other hand was barely edible (1/10):
On Sunday morning we walked to Frutaria where we had some very unique Acai juice from berries that grow in the Amazon:
And where we dug into a delicious Pinha fruit. Brazil has lots of unique fruits and trying them out is highly recommended.
Sao Paulo has tons of great markets, and Sunday is peak market day. There were a couple of markets right on Avenida Paulista, right outside our hotel. It was raining, but the markets were still open and we purchased some neat presents for friends back home. Back in 2004 I bought a massive Amethyst for my mother from this market for a small fraction of what it could cost back home. This time we bought things that were a little easier to transport though 🙂
Mimi then went back into the hotel to put Talia down for a nap and Rafi and I went to Nur for lunch.
The Peppercorn steak was awesome (9/10):
And Rafi enjoyed a delicious piece of shnitzel (8.5/10):
The Caipirinha was very good, though not as good as Celadon’s (8/10):
Rafi and I took the subway back to the hotel after lunch. Sao Paulo’s subways are clean, efficient, and easy to use.
Talia was up when we got back to the hotel so we decided to check out the Liberdade market. This time we took an Uber, which was nicer and cheaper than the taxis. But by the time we got there the market was already closing down for the day.
Afterward we went to Super K to find food to bring with us the following morning to Iguaçu Falls.
Sao Paulo’s Sushi Papaia gets rave reviews from most people, but Mimi was more jealous of the steak I had then getting sushi, so we went back to Nur again 😀
Plus the kids were more likely to find food they liked in Nur than they were at a sushi place.
Unfortunately this time the steaks were not good at all (5/10). Frankly I have no idea how to explain that, but in one day I managed to have an incredible steak and another that was only edible. Go figure.
Sushi hot roll was very good though (7.5/10):
And their Passion fruit Caipirinha was very good (8/10):
Skip the dessert here (4/10):
It was nice to return to Sao Paulo, but for most tourists there are far more compelling places in Brazil to visit.
We were nervous about being able to find a cab big enough to drive us all to the airport with our bags, but a friend told us about Francisco (you can Whatsapp him at +55-11-998450-7965, though his English skills aren’t great) and he has a large car that worked perfectly, plus he was super friendly and cheaper than a taxi. We left several hours before out flight as I knew that Sao Paulo’s traffic could be horrendous. But with Google showing that roads were clear we stopped off at James Bakery in Bom Retiro on the way to the airport for some delicious bread and cake to bring to Iguaçu Falls.
We made it to the airport with plenty of time for the flight. I remembered from back in 2004 that GOL had weighed my carry-on at check-in and forced me to check it in, so this time I nudged my carry-on right up to the desk where it wouldn’t be seen.
In 2004, I had my share of run-ins with Brazil bureaucracy. They didn’t like that my middle name was just an initial and made me go to the American consulate to verify that my middle name really is just an initial. And every time I flew I ran into issues due to them not sending me a student visa because of the middle name issues.
But we got through security with ease, it was far more lax than it is in the USA.
Little did I know that we’d soon be threatened to be taken off the plane by the police.
To be continued…