Author Topic: jaywhy's Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico Trip Report  (Read 19180 times)

Offline jaywhy

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jaywhy's Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico Trip Report
« on: August 26, 2014, 05:08:26 PM »
My family and I just returned from a 2.5 week trip throughout South America. We had an incredible trip and thanks to miles and points, were able to take this trip for a fraction of the cost that it wouldíve cost had we paid for it. I think I can provide a different perspective, as we were traveling with my 2 little girls, aged 2 years and 4 months respectively. Iíd also like to emphasize how it is possible to travel internationally with little kids and still have a great time. We flew 7 segments and over 12.5k miles.

Our itinerary looked like this.



8/7 MIA-GRU TAM F
8/11 GRU-GIG GOL Y
8/13 GIG-IGU TAM Y
8/14 IGR-AEP LAN Y
8/20 EZE-GRU TAM J
8/20 GRU-MEX TAM F
8/24 MEX-MIA AA J


So here goes.

Part 1: Planning, booking, and the first leg: MIA-GRU TAM F.


I first started thinking about this trip in February, when TAM inexplicably started releasing almost all of their first class inventory for awards. With only 4 seats in their FC cabin, it is the smallest first class cabin in the sky and perfect for the size of my family.

As I know many here can relate, as tough as it is to redeem miles for premium cabins, it gets even harder when you add a lap infant or two into the mix. Most airlines charge 10% of the full fare ticket, which can easily amount to a few thousand dollars.

The novelty of being able to book the entire first class cabin with miles really appealed to me. What sealed the deal was a tip from MEIR613 that it was possible to book a US Airways awardFrom North America to Central America via South America, using a stopover in South America and dropping the cost of the tickets from 125k per person for first class to 60k per person for first class. I was hooked.

I topped up my US account with SPG, found dates that worked for us and had all 4 seats available for awards and started calling US. The first 7 agents were fairly geographically savvy and properly priced my award at the 125k per person price. The 8th agent picked with a cheery hello in a thick midwestern accent and I knew I had a winner. She saw that the PNR was saved at the 125k pp South American price, but with a little bit of convincing as to the true location of GRU ;), she proceed to reprice the award to the 60k per person Central America price. Once it was repriced, I had her issue the tickets immediately and almost broke out into a little dance once I got the confirmation email with the ticket numbers.  ;D
Our original itinerary looked like this.

8/6 MCO-GRU TAM F
8/20 GRU-MEX TAM F
8/24 MEX-MIA AA J
8/24 MIA-MCO AA J

I live in Boca Raton, FL, so the optimal airport for me is MIA. TAM flies from both MIA and MCO with the MCO flight being operated by an Airbus A330 featuring the old first class and most of the MIA flights being operated by a Boeing 777 featuring the new first class. At the time of booking, only the MCO flight was available so I took that option. MCO is a little under 3 hours drive from my house and I figured it was a small price to pay for what we getting. TAM also offers a complimentary chauffeur on first class tickets, so I figured we would use that to get to MCO.

Once the flights were booked I began the process of obtaining visas for Brazil, which is a real pain. We needed to fill out a ton of forms, take very specific pictures, supply bank statements, pay $160 pp USPS money order, (no GCís >:() and go down to the consulate in Miami between 10am-12pm, leave our passports there and return to pick them up 3 weeks later. My wife has an Israeli passport which does not require a Visa for Brazil or reciprocity fee for Argentina so that saved us a bunch of cash. The Argentinian reciprocity fee was easy and simple, $160 pp and you can pay online with a CC. At least Argentina is straight up about the fact that they just want your money and doesnít make you go through the convoluted Brazilian process.

A couple of weeks before our departure, the flight out of Miami opened and I was really tempted to switch to get the new first class but it was going to cost $150 per person to make the change so I decided to hold off.
I then began the process of scheduling the chauffeur with TAM. This was my first real experience with the ďSpeed of South America,Ē which really crawls along. The first 2 agents were convinced that we weren't eligible but a supervisor corrected them and sent in the request to TAM special services. After a week of back and forth, they decided that we are ineligible because we were outside the pickup area and it would cost $500 to reserve it. At that point, I decided to switch our flights to the one leaving MIA with the new F and also leave a day later, as we were originally scheduled to leave the day after Tisha Bíav.  I also dropped the MIA-MCO segment as I had only added it to complete the RT and never planned on taking it in the first place.  It cost a painful $600 in change fees  but it was worth it not to have to go up to MCO and to have an extra day to pack and do laundryÖ Once I switched the flights, I called TAM back and they confirmed the chauffeur service for us. Our final itinerary that I booked via US looked like this.

8/7 MIA-GRU TAM F
8/20 GRU-MEX TAM F
8/24 MEX-MIA AA J


8/7: MIA-GRU TAM F B777 10:15am

Our chauffeur showed up around 6:45am and waited around until we were ready to leave at 7:30. TAM contracts a Brazilian car service in S Florida and the driver who showed up only spoke Portuguese. He helped us load up the car and we were off.


TAM Chauffeur service.

We arrived at MIA and there was a TAM special services representative waiting there for us. She escorted us to check-in, through security, and then to the VIP lounge. The VIP lounge is a contract lounge and is nothing special but they did have decent espresso and a freezer full of mini Haagen Dazs ice cream.


MIA VIP Lounge

MIA VIP Lounge

A few minutes prior to takeoff we were escorted onto the plane and into the first class cabin. The hard product is absolutely stunning, with a beautiful living room design aesthetic and huge, very comfortable seats. We were greeted by our two flight attendants and offered some champagne, which we didnít partake of. They did have Chivas 21 year and JW Gold label, neither of which I am a big fan of but made liberal use of. They handed out 2 amenity kits per person, noise canceling headphones, and pajamas, which were very comfortable.


TAM F cabin.

TAM F cabin.

Amenity kits.

Noise canceling headphones.


As we were flying a day flight, we wanted to put the kids for their nap before we ate and it took a good 1.5 hours to get them sleeping.


Putting my 2 year old to sleep.

The baby was easier.


After we got the kids to sleep, they set up the table for us to dine together, using the ottoman in front of the seat as the second seat. Now I didnít have very expectations for the food to begin with but was definitely not prepared for what came out. They brought out our KSMLís and I saw the packaging, Spaghetti and Meatballs by Mollyís Catering in S Florida, which is likely my least favorite food out there. My wife usually likes that stuff so she started eating it. After a bite, she declared them absolutely horrendous and inedible. I tasted a bite just to confirm and yes, this was truly the worst airline meal Iíve ever had, worse than any economy class meal. We picked through the bread and snacks and of course had brought some of our own food to supplement so we didnít starve.


"Fine" dining at 39k ft

Disgusting KSML




After eating our meager meal and drinking liberal amounts of scotch and beer, we had the flight attendants set up the beds and took a nap. The beds, pillows, and duvets  were very comfortable and conducive to sleeping. After about an hour, I woke up sweating and asked the FA to turn down the AC, which was to 25c (77f)!.


TAM F bed.


Our kids woke up soon afterwards and we fed them their lunches, and then I let my 2 year old run around a bit.

Iíve never flown a private jet before but I think this was possibly the closest you can come to flying private while still flying commercial. The cabin is amazingly private and my daughter was able to run around, jump over the seats, laugh, and scream to her heartís content. She was loving it.


Sisters enjoying some private F playtime ;)

The service was mediocre though. There was no purser and one of the two flight attendants working first class seemed to be very new at her job. The service was not proactive and the FAís were not at all fluent in English, which necessitated numerous pushes on the call buttons to get what we wanted. For a 20 minute period, the forward galley was unoccupied and our calls went unanswered, after that, another flight attendant we hadnít seen before showed up and started working first class, which I found very odd.

Soon it was time to eat the kosher snack provided. It was a roll with a pack of chicken bologna and mustard. Needless to say it wasnít very good, although better than our lunch entrees.


Kosher snack.

The flight time was fairly short at 8:55 and soon enough it was time for landing. Landing was very smooth and had a long taxi through GRU where we saw some nice airplane traffic. I had signed us both up for T Mobileís Simple Choice plans, which come with free international data and texting and it took a few minutes for my phone to connect to the local network and start working after I turned it on.

After all the other passengers had deplaned, a TAM special services rep came aboard to escort us off the plane, and through Brazilian immigration. Before we left, I went to go check out the cockpit.


B777 Cockpit.

Our FAís had neglected to give us immigration forms, so I needed to fill them out at the desk. Immigration was fast, and once we cleared, there was another agent waiting for us with our bags. I went to the currency exchange to get BRL and the agent there tried to sell me that there was a 35BRL commission on transactions. After I pushed back, she dropped the commission fee and gave me a decent rate that was not too far off from the official rate. I assume she was going to skim that 35 off the top for herself.

After I got the money, we went outside and paid with a CC for a taxi for our first destination in Sao Paulo, which was my wifeís auntís house in Jardins.

I had originally reserved the Grand Hyatt in Sao Paulo, but my wife thought it made more sense to stay at her auntís house for 2 reasons. 1. She lives in one of the Jewish communities there, giving us a much better location. 2. We were going to be there for Shabbos, and there is no eruv in the area, so we would be stuck in the hotel with the kids for an entire Shabbos. I obviously would much rather stay in nice hotels than peopleís homes, but the logic prevailed and we decided to stay there.

To be continuedÖ.

« Last Edit: August 26, 2014, 05:29:18 PM by jaywhy »

Offline SamKey

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Re: jaywhy's Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico Trip Report
« Reply #1 on: August 26, 2014, 05:26:11 PM »
FANTASTIC!

Offline Joe4007

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Re: jaywhy's Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico Trip Report
« Reply #2 on: August 26, 2014, 05:28:12 PM »
Awesome! Waiting for the rest.

aged 2 and 4 months respectively.
Hmmm... ;)

Offline jaywhy

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Re: jaywhy's Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico Trip Report
« Reply #3 on: August 26, 2014, 05:29:33 PM »
Awesome! Waiting for the rest.
Hmmm... ;)
Thanks. Fixed ;)

Offline Dan

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Re: jaywhy's Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico Trip Report
« Reply #4 on: August 26, 2014, 05:30:22 PM »
Awesome, keep it coming por favor!
Save your time, I don't answer PM. Post it in the forum and a dedicated DDF'er will get back to you as soon as possible.

Offline Yaalili

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Re: jaywhy's Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico Trip Report
« Reply #5 on: August 26, 2014, 07:09:36 PM »
Awesome TR so far, can't believe u got that whole cabin. Too bad we didn't get to meet.. Looking forward for the rest of the report, Obrigado!

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Re: jaywhy's Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico Trip Report
« Reply #6 on: August 27, 2014, 07:55:53 AM »
Great report! Cool stuff - please keep it coming.

Offline moish

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Re: jaywhy's Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico Trip Report
« Reply #7 on: August 27, 2014, 08:35:32 AM »
great stuff

Offline Marco Polo

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Re: jaywhy's Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico Trip Report
« Reply #8 on: August 27, 2014, 10:54:52 AM »
Great TR so far! Love the idea if having the whole F to yourselves.
Quaerite et Invenietis.

Offline jaywhy

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Re: jaywhy's Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico Trip Report
« Reply #9 on: September 11, 2014, 01:06:31 AM »
Part Two: Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

We took a cab to my wifeís auntís in Jardins, which took about an hour. My wifeís aunt was happy to babysit for us, so we got settled, put the kids to bed, as it was already 8pm, and went out to have dinner at Cantina de Berro, a pizza place that was having a sushi rodizio that night. A rodizio is an all-you-can-eat buffet. The pizza was good although nothing special. One interesting thing they had that I havenít seen elsewhere is a wooden case with a cover for the pizza that they bring to your table and leave there with the cover on. It keeps the pizza hot for much longer than it would stay hot otherwise. The sushi was very plain and not very good.

Cantina de Berro 3/5

One point about the weather. Officially, it was winter in Brazil while we were there; although, I did not find the weather to be cold at all. There was a nice chill in the air that kept things crisp, but I didnít feel like I needed a jacket at any point in time in Brazil. It was definitely a nice respite from the brutal summer heat in Boca Raton.

The T-Mobile roaming service in Sao Paulo was not very good. My phone kept switching between networks and didnít have service in a lot of places, especially indoors. The service got much better after we left Sao Paulo and worked perfectly for the remainder of the trip.

The next day, Friday, we went out for lunch at Sushi Papaia. I had read in the Brazil master thread that this place was excellent, on par with Yakimono in Montreal, which I consider to be the best kosher place Iíve ever been to-better than Shallotís in Chicago. I am a big sushi fan, so needless to say, I was excited to check it out.
There are actually 2 Sushi Papaia restaurants on the same block, one kosher and and one non-kosher. Both are owned by the same owner, and he supposedly wishes he opened the kosher one sooner than he did, and the prices certainly reflect that.

They had a menu in English, but it didnít have any prices on it. I suspect that might be intentional, as the prices are quite high. There was some confusion with our order, as some items on the menu were in portuguese, and no one there spoke any english, and I somehow ended up with a sushi tataki cone with mushrooms as one of my dishes.
The sushi was very good quality sushi with a multitude of flavors and very fresh. I was not a fan of the mushroom cone thing though. My wife ordered a breaded beef dish which was good and some chicken fingers for my daughter, also good. Interestingly enough, this was the only restaurant we were at during our trip that offered fresh tuna, everyone else was serving it from cans. Apparently the demand for fresh tuna there is not like it is stateside.
It was a good meal, but there is no way I would rank this place at anywhere near Yakimono or Shallots. Not even close.

Sushi Papaia 3.75/5

Afterwards we walked around Higienopolis a bit and then took a cab home. I had downloaded the 99Taxis app which allows you to flag down taxis using your phone, similar Uber, except that you are still using official taxis. It is a great app and worked very well, with us getting a taxi at our location usually within 3 minutes.

As it was winter, Shabbos came in around 5pm. Shabbos was very nice and the people in the shuls we davened in were super friendly, and many of them came over to say hi after davening.

On Saturday night, my wifeís aunt babysat for us again and we went to go check out an ice cream place called Baccio de Latte. They have a list of their kosher flavors that you can request, although they are not CY.
We were in for a big treat. The ice cream was the most amazing, delicious ice cream we had ever tasted in our lives. It was soft, creamy, and the flavors tasted so real and exquisite. The espresso was really good as well. After we finished eating, my wife and I both agreed that it was, hands down, the best ice cream we had ever had.

Baccio de Latte 5/5


Baccio de Latte Espresso


Baccio de Latte Ice Cream

The next day, Sunday, we woke up late and I spent the first half of the day booking our internal flights around Brazil, which I had neglected to book earlier. After that we went out to walk around Rue Oscar Freire, which is a high-end shopping avenue that runs through Jardins.
We ended up at the grocery store to pick up some provisions, and then went to have lunch at Via Babush, another pizza/sushi place in Higienopolis. The pizza and sushi were both decent, but again, nothing special.

Via Babush: 3.25/5

After that, we took a cab to Hotel Unique, a boutique hotel in Jardins with incredible rooftop views that a friend had recommended we check out. The hotel is definitely ďUnique,Ē as it is shaped like a boat and has circular windows. From the outside, it didnít look like it would offer much in terms of views as it is not very tall, but it is situated on top of a hill and really has some impressive, commanding views of Sao Paulo. We spent some time on the rooftop bar and then took a cab back to the house to pack up and get the kids to bed.


View from Hotel Unique.


View from Hotel Unique.


Hotel Unique Rooftop Bar.


We had heard good things about Nur, a nice meat restaurant in Higienopolis, so we decided to go there for dinner. My wifeís aunt agreed to babysit our kids again so my wife and I were able to go out unencumbered. The restaurant was fairly empty when we were there and the service was very attentive, which is more than I can say for most of the other places we were at.
The food was excellent. My wife and I both ordered peppercorn steaks, medium rare for me and medium for her and they were both very tender, flavorful, and juicy. The sides were very good and the peppercorn sauce was spectacular.  We had an apple tart for dessert and that was excellent as well.

Nur: 4.25/5


Nur Peppercorn Steak

We awoke early the next morning for our flight to Rio de Janeiro, which I had booked with Gol, a Brazilian low cost carrier. We took a cab to the airport and paid with a CC at the taxi station by the entrance. Check-in at GRU took at least an hour, even waiting at the priority line. Surprisingly, they didnít give us any issues about our luggage, which was a few kgís overweight.

After we checked in our bags, we went to the gate printed on our BPís only to find it completely empty! Apparently, they had suddenly switched gates on us without bothering to inform anyone. We found the correct gate and arrived just as they were starting to board. Brazilians have a reputation for being very friendly people, and we definitely found that to be the case throughout our time in Brazil. The people waiting ushered us to the front of the line and after they scanned our BPís, they helped us board the waiting bus that would take us to the plane. After we drove through the tarmac and around a BA 747, we pulled up to our plane, a 737-800.


Gol 737

Just a side point. Delta partners with both Gol and Aerolineas Argentinas and offers coach redemptions within Southern South America for 25k RT. Combine that with a stopover and an open-jaw and you can really hop around Brazil and Argentina for cheap.
I had put GRU-GIG, GIG-IGU, IGR-EZE on hold with DL but the hold expired prematurely and the seats for GIG-IGU never went back into inventory so we had to buy some flights and use Avios instead. I found the Gol experience to be very good for a LCC. The seats had decent pitch and they handed out snacks and drinks.

We landed in Rio de Janeiro, and took a cab to our next hotel, Sheraton Rio. I had booked it with the employee rate. It was in the cab that my wife remembered that she had left her phone in the seatback pocket on the plane. Rather than waste my time on the phone in Portuguese, I filed a lost item report with their Twitter team, who spoke English and were very helpful. I also tried calling it and searching for it on Find My iPhone but had no luck finding it. Luckily she was using her old 3GS for the trip and not her new 5S. We figured it was gone for good. More on that later.
For the remainder of the trip, she just used the roaming on her 5S sparingly.

The drive from the airport to the hotel took about an hour, traffic through downtown Rio was quite bad. We did see some cool sand sculptures on Copacabana Beach.


Beach sand sculptures.


We arrived at the hotel and checked into a gorgeous lobby with big glass walls overlooking the blue ocean. Check-in there was another encounter with the Speed of South America as it took at least 20 minutes to check us in.


Check-in lobby at Sheraton Rio.


We went up to our room, a fairly large modern room with a gorgeous view of Rio. I tried to take a shower but soon discovered that the there was no hot water. Maintenance sent up a engineer to check it out and after a few minutes of fiddling, he called the engineering dept and found out that there was a hot water outage that had just been fixed in the hotel. The hot water came back quickly and I took a much needed shower.


View from the balcony at Sheraton Rio


We took a cab to Copacabana and walked around the area and checked out some of the stores in the neighborhood. They had a lot of touristy stores which we avoided but there was still what to see. We found a store selling young coconuts and had some fresh coconut water and papayas.

For dinner, we went to Deleite Pizza, in Copacabana. The pizza there was good with an interesting, cracker-like crust and they had a good selection of beer. I did find it to be extremely overpriced.

Deleite: 3.25/5


Deleite pizza and beer



Rio has a reputation of being a dangerous city but the reality is that as long as you are vigilant and avoid the Favelas, you will be fine. Snatch and grabs are supposedly also common.
BH, we did not encounter any issues at all and felt very safe.

Copacabana at night.

After returning back to the hotel, we went to go hang out in the back of the hotel, where they had the pools, a bar, restaurant and cabanas right in front of the beach. It was there where I discovered the Caipirinha, the native brazilian cocktail.
The Caipirinha is made with muddled limes and sugar, ice, and cachaca, a distilled spirit made of sugar cane, very similar to rum. It is refreshing, delicious, and can really hit you fast. After an unspecified amount of Caipirinhas, we returned to our room to go to sleep.


Cabanas at the Sheraton Rio.

The next day we went over to Sugarloaf Mountain in the Rio harbor. Sugarloaf Mountain is a natural granite mountain rising 1,299 feet above the Rio harbor and offers incredible views of the city. They have 2 separate cable cars that you can take to get to the top of the mountain, and it is fairly stroller friendly.

Now a few words about our stroller setup. A few weeks before the trip, I purchased a Citi Select stroller with a second seat and carseat attachment (with multiple 20% off coupons at BBB;-)). We took it on a mini trip to NYC to test it out and really liked it. While it is heavy and bulky, it is built like a tank and holds a ridiculous amount of bags in the bottom pocket and hook attached to the handlebar. I also got a large bag to put the whole contraption into when we would fold it gate check it. Assembly and disassembly is a pain, but after a few times doing it, I was able to put it together and take it apart in a couple of minutes. It was a far cry from the ease of our previous stroller, a Citi Mini GT, which folds in about 5 seconds, but we needed the double stroller capability. The luggage capacity is also far better than the GT, which has a tiny bottom basket and cannot support anything from the handlebar due to stability issues. In fact, once we checked in our luggages, we were able to traverse the airport with all of our carry ons and hand luggage loaded onto the stroller, while being simultaneously occupied by both kids.



Back to Sugarloaf Mountain. We took the first cable car up the mountain and stopped at the first viewpoint. Again, the Brazilianís were super friendly and accommodating to us, giving us priority and trying to assist when they saw were with our kids. The views from the mountain are truly astonishing. Rio has a very unique harbor, with the sea entering the harbor similar to a river mouth. There are also a number of granite mountains similar to Sugarloaf overlooking the harbor. One cool sight was seeing the planes come in for landing at Santos Dumont airport, the local Rio airport. The landing strips are surrounded by water and the planes come in really low above the water between Sugarloaf and the city. You are actually looking down on the planes as they come in for landing.


View from Sugarloaf Mountain.


View from Sugarloaf Mountain.


Planes landing at Santos Dumont Airport.


Planes landing at Santos Dumont Airport.


Cable car up the mountain.

We stopped for lunch at the picnic area at the midway point and enjoyed some delicious maracuya (passion fruit) from a fruit stand there. After lunch, we boarded the second cable car for the ride to the top. The mountain is surrounded by lush vegetation and has lots of wildlife living there. Supposedly, you can  see monkeys cavorting in the trees although we didnít see any. There were also lots of birds flying overhead.


View of Copacabana and Leblon.


Sugarloaf Mountain.

After some time at the top of the mountain, we headed back down and took a cab back to Copacabana for dinner. There is a meat restaurant called Shelanu, located inside the Brazilian Israeli Club in Copacabana. The food there was fresh and tasty and really hits the spot after a long day of sightseeing. The owner, Roger, is very friendly and engaging, and speaks fluent english. My wife had a garlic steak and I had a burger.


Garlic Steak.


Roger's Burger.

After dinner, we did some shopping in the area and picked up some souvenirs and trinkets for my mom and sisters, as well as groceries for our time in Igauzu Falls, where kosher food is extremely limited. Then it was back to the hotel for a night swim, the cabanas, and some more caipirinhas. The weather in Rio was fantastic; the days were warm, but not too hot, and the nights were just perfect.

The next morning, we woke up early to a gorgeous sunrise, packed up, and took a cab back to the airport for our flight to Igauzu Falls.


Sunrise over Rio.


To be continuedÖ.

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Re: jaywhy's Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico Trip Report
« Reply #10 on: September 11, 2014, 01:25:17 AM »
Great job once again. Keep it coming

Offline Yehoshua

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Re: jaywhy's Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico Trip Report
« Reply #11 on: September 11, 2014, 01:33:54 AM »
Amazing pictures, nice TR. Funny how I don't remember being able to see Rio from my Balcony at the Sheraton Rio eve  though we did face that direction. All we saw was a wall if for, even the favelas across the street were hidden. 😠
Looking forward to the rest!

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Re: jaywhy's Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico Trip Report
« Reply #12 on: September 11, 2014, 12:45:12 PM »
Incredible pictures you got there!!! Brings back so many memories, when i was there we actually took a hike from Leblon to the Sheraton Rio through the rocky mountain road, and the views change every other minute, always getting better and different. Can't wait for the rest!!!

Offline Yaalili

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Re: jaywhy's Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico Trip Report
« Reply #13 on: September 11, 2014, 12:46:21 PM »
Oh and glad you found the caiprinha it's the best of brazil, hard to find a good brand of cachaca in the states.

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Re: jaywhy's Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico Trip Report
« Reply #14 on: September 11, 2014, 12:48:09 PM »
Oh and glad you found the caiprinha it's the best of brazil, hard to find a good brand of cachaca in the states.
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Save your time, I don't answer PM. Post it in the forum and a dedicated DDF'er will get back to you as soon as possible.