Tudo bom from Brazil … or Brasil (Brazilians spell it with an ‘s’.) Last week I wrote about my seven and a half hour American Airlines flight from Miami to Belo Horizonte. This week, we’ll explore one of Brazil’s largest cities.
Before we get started, we should touch on the subject of the swine flu. As I mentioned last week, I think there was a lot of overblown media hype surrounding this and it appears that’s the case. At the moment, I feel everyone’s anxiety easing. At church on Sunday, our priest made an announcement that there would be no vino at communion and no handholding during the Our Father. I never drink out of the sacred chalice for fear of developing herpes but no handholding? It makes sense if there’s a real epidemic but they didn’t say anything about not shaking hands during the ‘Peace be with you’. It was awkward at first but almost everyone turned to one another and shook hands anyway. One parishioner turned to me and said, “This is a bunch of hooey!” and gave me a hearty handshake. I was bumming that I’d forgotten my hand sanitizer in the car but I made sure not to bite my nails until I got home. What’s crazy is that while all this flu talk was going on, guess who was home sick? That’s right. The one time I get sick this year happens to be during the swine flu scare. Watching the news and following people’s Twitter feeds, I thought for sure it was just a matter of hours, if not minutes, before I oinked my last oink. But I’m back, baby! Just in case you’re still worried we created a swine flu resource page with all the links you need for information, including airline and cruise line policies.
Another huge bummer from last week: my beloved Toshiba Satellite M115 that has traveled around the world with me, died; that’s why last week’s newsletter was a day late. Maybe it had caught the H1N1 virus but I think it was because I had less than a gig left on the hard drive and my ADD self had 10 windows open and a video playing! I loved that computer but at two and a half years old, it was a dinosaur so it was time to move on, anyway. The good folks over at Toshiba put me in touch with Dr. Mel Raab who runs Automagic. It’s a Toshiba repair center located in the heart of Beverly Hills so many of his customers are celebrities. Dr. Mel not only recovered my files but he talked me into getting a smaller (it’s the same size as a single sheet of legal size paper), lighter and more expensive Toshiba. I pulled the trigger on the Portege A600 since it will open up so much space in my carry-on luggage and reduce the weight. On top of that, the plug is much smaller which is a huge bonus. One of the main reasons I chose the Portege is because you can still get XP instead of Vista. So far I’m really happy and the Windows Movie Maker is so much quicker than the old one. However, what I don’t like about it is that some of the keys (Delete and INS) are in different places, which really requires a period of adjustment, the sound isn’t that great, the fan is still loud and annoying and worst of all, opening windows in Internet Explorer takes about twice as long as it did before.
MEDIA ALERT: Did you see that our new Twitter travel resource page made USA Today last week? The page was also featured in Baltimore’s Fox News broadcast. If you’re on Twitter, be sure to check it out and follow me!
WELCOME TO BRAZIL
When Natalie and I landed in Belo Horizonte, a slow immigration line greeted us – just two young women (probably outsourced from a private firm) working the counter. We waited about 15 minutes and we were towards the front of the line. The local tourism office arranged for an incredible guide named Heinar (my middle name is Einar, which he got a huge kick out of) and he was waiting outside of baggage claim. From the Belo Horizonte airport (CNF) to our hotel in the center of the city was 42km (26 miles) and took roughly 45 minutes without traffic.
I mentioned last week that in major cities in Brazil, you really have to be careful about not carrying valuables; no jewelry (not even wedding rings), expensive cameras, etc. Heinar informed us about basic safety precautions and warned us about the weather. Here it’s very unpredictable – it could be hot and sunny one minute and pouring rain the next — so always bring an umbrella. Check out the 10-day Belo Horizonte weather forecast. And remember: Since Brazil is in the southern hemisphere so the seasons are opposite to ours in North America.
Usually, the first thing I do after clearing customs is hit the ATM machine. But I forgot so after checking into the hotel, I went on the search for one. The local ATM wouldn’t accept my card so then I went to an HSBC ATM, about four blocks away from the hotel. It worked but the machines work different down here. Just insert your card then pull it out immediately. Wait for the English sign to come up, enter your code discretely, then put your card back into the machine to confirm and voila! The Brazilian currency is called Real (BRL) and 1 BRL = $0.46 USD. So if you withdraw $100 USD, it’s equivalent to 213 BRL. Basically, that means everything in Brazil is half-price, which makes it my kind of country!
Belo Horizonte (pronounced “HoriZONCH) is Portuguese for “beautiful horizon”. Most locals call it Beagá which is the Portuguese sound of its initials “BH” … but don’t get it confused with Beverly Hills because this city is nothing like 90210. This BH is industrialist. The city is a processing center of a rich agricultural and mining region. Belo Horizonte is located in the southeastern region of Brazil in the state of Minas Gerais. It’s either the third or sixth most populous city in the country — the numbers I have are conflicting but the point is, it’s not a small city. The population in the metropolitan area is over 6.1 million. If you’re an American tourist you probably wouldn’t come if it weren’t for the remarkable UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s the nearby – the city of Ouro Preto (more on it next week). There’s no beach in BH and when I think of Brazil, I think beach, bikinis, Cristo and Caipirinhas (pronounced KIE-PEE-REEN-YAH) — Brazil’s national cocktail made with cachaca.
LIBERTY PALACE HOTEL
Belo Horizonte needs some help in their hotel department. We were staying at one of the city’s nicest places, the Liberty Palace Hotel. Don’t get me wrong: it was pleasant but not as luxurious as it’s described. By American standards, it’s a solid 3-, maybe 3.5-star hotel. The elevators are small and slow. The rooms are dated with twin beds. The walls and windows are thin (you can hear outside traffic). There was only one electrical outlet so it was a good thing I’d brought my Belkin Mini Surge Protector so I could charge more than one gadget at a time. It did have a 31-inch flat screen TV and fast FREE internet but possibly the world’s smallest and oldest safe deposit box. It would be tough to fit an iPod in there let alone a computer, so me, being paranoid like I am, left my laptop with the front desk clerk when I went out; usually a safer bet anyway. The water pressure was really good in the shower, but when in Brazil, it’s best to brush your teeth with bottled water.
HOTEL FOOD AND DRINK
Speaking of water: When you check-in at the hotel, they greet you with either a glass of water or a Caipirinha. I’m not sure if the water is bottled or not so you might want to go with a Caipirinha. Breakfast was included in the rate and it was pretty darned good. I especially liked the fresh fruit (mango, pineapple, bananas, grapes, strawberry…), the fruit juices and pastries – loved the banana bread! They also offered cereal, scrambled eggs, bacon and hot dogs in a sauce (a first for me). If you want American comfort food you don’t have to look too far — the mall across the street has a T.G.I. Fridays, though of course, it would almost be a sin to go when you’re in Brazil. Liberty Palace Hotel, Rua Paraiba, 1465 Savassi, Belo Horizonte; Tel: +55 (31) 2121-0900.
We touched down around 10am so by 1pm, we were starving. Heinar took us to a popular restaurant that’s so good it’s almost worth the trip to Belo Horizonte just to eat there. It took about 20 minutes to drive to Xapuri, which is in the Pampulha neighborhood. The restaurant is huge and run by a very sweet woman with a popular cookbook. After devouring her food, I can see why it’s so sought after because her food is incredible. She claims her secret is local ingredients (meat, fruit and vegetables). We sat at a long wooden table sipping Caipirinhas and Brazil’s favorite soda, Guarana Antarctica. It was a real treat to watch plate after plate come by filled with delicious local recipes like: Feijão tropeiro (sausage and beans), then sausage with onions and peppers, pork medallions in a savory sauce, rice, beans …. The highlight for me was a bright orange cooked pumpkin stuffed with chicken stew and melted local cheese. It was one of the best and most unique dishes I’ve ever had. Dessert was killer too — buffet style with lots of coconut. Restaurante Xapuri’s contact information is in Portuguese so here’s their website: RestauranteXapuri.com.br.
FOGO DE CHãO
Another delicious restaurant is Fogo de Chão. Although Fogo de Chão was created in Brazil you don’t have to come all the way here to experience it. This over-the-top churrascaria (Brazilian barbecue) is now a worldwide chain and they have more restaurants in the U.S. than Brazil. No matter which one you go to, you’d better arrive hungry because you’re guaranteed to leave feeling like Grimace. The restaurant is fairly new and I’m not sure if it’s going to catch on here. We dined at 8:30pm on a Friday night and the beautifully designed, open space restaurant was empty. I figured that was because it was so early but only a few more parties came in throughout the night. Perhaps it’s the bad economy but regardless, the food, service and presentation were all outstanding. Every time you took your seat, someone was there to pull out your chair. Until the minute you flip your green “uncle” card over to the red side, there was a waiter offering you a different kind of meat (no chicken or fish). Prior to that, guests are invited to the immaculately clean salad bar for roasted peppers, fresh cheeses, rice, beans … If that’s not enough, the waiters bring fries, plantains, fried polenta, sausage, chicken hearts (nasty) to the table. We were all so full we walked the six blocks back to the hotel. Fogo de Chão, Rua Sergipe, 1208; Tel: (55) 31-3227-2730.
TOURING BELO HORIZONTE
There’s not really a lot to see in Belo Horizonte but tourism is beginning to develop with the sudden influx of business travelers. Did you know Google has their Latin American headquarters in BH? The Google geeks probably take visitors sightseeing to Praça do Papa (Plaza of the Pope). It was given its name after Pope John Paul II held a youth mass here in 1980. From up here, visitors get an incredible view of the entire city.
Most of Belo Horizonte’s cultural landmarks are located in the Pampulha district around a serene, 18-kilometer lake. This is where there are famous examples of Brazilian contemporary architecture designed by Oscar Niemeyer. Niemeyer and former President Juscelino Kubitschek are credited for creating Belo Horizonte’s large lakes, parks, wide avenues and jutting skylines in the 1940s.
Some of the highlights include one of the world’s largest soccer stadiums (at the time). Since then a newer stadium has been built next door and the Mineirão stadium is Brazil’s third largest soccer stadium – it holds 72,000 but at one game they had 132,000!
CHURCH OF SAINT FRANCIS OF ASSISI
I took a tour of the Church of St. Francis of Assisi (São Francisco de Assis), which was built in 1793. It features soapstone altars and pulpits by Aleijadinho. It’s also famous for it’s sacristy’s ceiling panels, which were painted by Ataíde. Entrance fee is 2 BRL ($0.94 cents).
PAMPULHA ART MUSEUM
Close by is the Pampulha Art Museum with landscaped gardens by Burle Marx (I visited his incredible home outside of Rio in 2007). The museum opened in 1957 and is sparsely decorated with some really bizarre modern art pieces in a large open space building. The only thing that held my attention was the fact that it’s right on the lake and housed in a former illegal casino (it closed in 1946). The coolest thing was the former disco turned amphitheater, which had outrageous sound effects. The museum is only open for guided visits Tuesday through Sunday and admission is free.
Next week Ouro Preto: Join me for a step back in time and a visit to a UNESCO World Heritage Site that should not be missed.
Note: This trip was sponsored in part by American Airlines.
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