Archive for the ‘brasilia’ Tag

Brasilia, September 2016

This is of course Brazil’s capital, built in the center of the country, but the middle of nowhere, in a relatively short span in the 1950s, and officially inaugurated in 1960. The plan is obvious from the air as you approach the airport, shaped like a bird, or a drawn bow and arrow, with a spine of government structures spanning about a mile, and numerous structures designed by Oscar Niemeyer. It was recognized with World Heritage status in 1987.

It’s a decent, but long day trip from Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro, with frequent and reasonably priced flights. I was based in Rio, and it’s advisable to use a departure from the centrally located Santos Dumont Airport (SDU), instead of the much further Galeao Airport (GIG). I picked a 6 AM departure from SDU, a quick and inexpensive taxi ride, but ended up returning to GIG, which made for a rather long, 90 minute return bus trip to my hotel in Copacabana. It’s a 90 minute flight over a pretty barren landscape that gives you an appreciation for the task involved in building a new federal capital from scratch sixty years ago, and sprouting a city of now 3 million inhabitants.

There’s a bus that stops just outside the terminal in Brasilia, which will drop you off at the major sites downtown. It’s a 20 minute ride, and I got off at the Tres Poderes (three powers), which is surrounded by Niemeyer’s signature buildings. This fairly small area is home to Brazil’s version of the Capitol, the White House, and the Supreme Court, all within about 500 m or each other. They’re also the best structures in town. I took the free tour of Congress, which was impressive, it’s the building with the skyscraper in the middle and the two domes. The interior is also very nice, with a cool collection of mid-century furniture and art and a sophisticated feel. Nearby is the presidential palace, the supreme court, and the foreign ministry. Behind it is a cluster of 1980s structures by Niemeyer, which are crumbling.

National Congress building

National Congress building (1960)

Itamaraty Palace (Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Itamaraty Palace, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (1970)

I walked west, about a mile towards the cathedral. It’s not that large, and a pretty cheerful space, with a gleaming white interior and lots of stained glass. I liked it, while the building next door, the museum, was a crumbling UFO. Way further afield, another mile away, is the Santuario Dom Bosco, completed in 1970, which is pretty unexceptional from the outside, but is a winner inside, bathed in light shining through blue and purple stained glass.

Interior, Brasilia Cathedral

Interior, Brasilia Cathedral (1970)

Interior, Don Bosco Chapel

Interior, Don Bosco Chapel (1970)

Niemeyer’s buildings elicit a visceral response. You can’t doubt the imagination that went into them, but I get this feeling that he forgot the human scale in Brasilia. It’s a bold plan on paper or in a model, but doesn’t quite work in reality. Now overall, the city comes across as being pretty sterile, with little pedestrian traffic, few places to sit and enjoy the view, and vast exposed empty spaces that are hard to maintain. Despite some very nice religious structures scattered around the city, it’s reminiscent of some of the places in the old Eastern Bloc that I’ve been to, like Chisinau. The main axis is a bit like Washington’s Mall, but with much less character, less vegetation, and really grim buildings and ministries lining the road. It’s also a very pedestrian-unfriendly city, the address system is nearly impossible for a first-time visitor to decipher, and the main social centers seem to be shopping malls. I took lunch in a mall food court after nearly starving, dodging a few six lane highways, and creepy stretches of concrete jungle to find an unmarked Brutalist structure that actually had people inside.

The living areas are way in the periphery, with a large slum on the western outskirts, while the original 1950s / 1960s living quarters are in generally good shape and wealthy areas, with a few of them carefully preserving Niemeyer’s intentions. Interspersed between the apartment buildings (located in these so-called Superquadras or superblocks) are lots of greenery and a small commercial zone every few blocks. It’s hard to imagine these really getting lots of street life, but they seem to have a decent selection of restaurants and markets. Downtown there’s very little in terms of services.

Restored apartment building

Restored apartment building

Typical  neighborhood commercial stretch

Typical neighborhood commercial stretch

A word about safety, since this is on the minds of most visitors to Brazil- Brasilia is quite safe, I didn’t worry about carrying my DSLR around and taking lots of photographs, unlike in Rio and Sao Paulo.

A few Brazil basics

I visited Brazil for the first time a couple weeks ago, spending time in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, and Brasilia. I came between the Olympics and the Paralympics, and in the middle of the impeachment turmoil. The usual visa regulations were suspended between June 1 and September 18. This made traveling to Brazil quite convenient, as getting a visa is rather cumbersome, in addition to the $160 visa cost. So with that amount of money saved, I took a flight directly to Rio and shuttled back and forth between Rio, Sao Paulo, and Brasilia, before flying out of Sao Paulo.

So this post will cover a few of those typical questions for first-time visitors to the country. I had my share of concerns and honestly a bit of trepidation over the safety aspect of the large cities, since this tends to be the first question that potential visitors ask. I’ve also heard my share of horror stories, but hey, I heard the same sort of stuff about visiting Detroit.

Is it safe? That’s probably the first question, as sadly, it seems like the first association people make when one mentions Rio is crime, and not the beaches, or Sugarloaf, or Christ the Redeemer. That said, I had no problems. It’s worth considering that despite all one hears about the dangers in Rio and Sao Paulo, they are busy and very large cities where millions of people go about their daily lives without problems. That said, there is an edgy feel in central Rio and Sao Paulo that takes some time feeling comfortable in. It reminded me of New York in the  days of the 1990s, where I still felt quite safe, despite a surge of violent crime. Brasilia had a slightly creepy feel in the hotel zone, as it was a Sunday when I visited, and many of the businesses were closed and the streets deserted. While the warning about central Rio on weekends should be heeded, I found the main streets of Copacabana to be pretty safe day and night- I did drag around a bunch of luggage and laptop bag while I was searching for my hotel. There are also lots of people walking around, eating out, drinking, etc. Ipanema felt much more upscale, as did Av. Paulista in Sao Paulo.

Arriving in Brazil. The main international airports in Rio (Tom Jobim Galeao, GIG) and Sao Paulo (Guarulhos, GRU) are pretty far from the city centers, but they’re the main international points of entry into Brazil. It is often a better idea to arrive at the smaller domestic airports, Santos Dumont (SDU) in central Rio, or Congonhas (CGH) in Sao Paulo, these smaller airports are centrally located and well-linked to the international gateway airports. Getting into town, I took the airport bus from Galeao, which goes to the main hotel zones in Copacabana and Ipanema. It’s cheap compared to a taxi, but it will take you 90 minutes to get to Copacabana, and you will need to know roughly where to get off. A good point of reference is the large, fancy Copacabana Palace Hotel which is a few short blocks after the highway emerges at the beach following the last tunnel.

From Guarulhos, I opted for the official taxi when I had my luggage, (150 Reais, or around $46 USD one way to Paulista), but if you’re traveling light, the bus 257 / subway combo is a real bargain (around $3.50 round-trip) and takes about 45-60 minutes to get to downtown. Note that the bus only stops at Terminals 1 and 2, and not the new Terminal 3, which handles many of the foreign carriers. There is a free shuttle between the terminals. The bus goes as far as the Tatuape subway station, which is 5-7 stops from the city center region. Luggage storage is available at Terminal 2, located between the East and West sectors. Lockers are 40 Reais per 24 hours, manned storage is 30 Reais.

Getting around. The taxis are generally honest and go by the meter, or by fixed price from the airport. They are also the preferred way of transport after dark, there are tons of them, and it’s safe to hail them on the street. The subway systems in Rio and Sao Paulo are excellent, and will get you around the main areas frequented by visitors.

I took the city bus from Av. Paulista to Congonhas Airport, and I don’t recommend this option, even if it’s cheap. It takes more than an hour to go the five mile route, it’s often standing room only, and you need to really keep your eyes open to get off at the right place! Take a taxi instead.

Going further afield, domestic flights are relatively cheap, with very frequent flights between Rio and Sao Paulo (~120 flights a day!), and security procedures are rather lax. It’s a convenient, and in many ways, necessary way of getting around a very large country, and an enjoyable experience. You even get a decent snack on the short flights.

Photography. Now I was a bit paranoid about hauling around an SLR camera, so I stuck to cell phone pictures for the most part, and used the SLR when I was part of a group or a tour (the Free Walking Tour of Sao Paulo is recommended). I also used the SLR at places requiring admission (Sugarloaf, Sao Paulo Museum of Art, the Martinelli Building). I did pull out the SLR on a Sunday afternoon walking around Av. Paulista, as there were lots of photographers out and about documenting a protest against the President. Perhaps this was a bit too much precaution, but I still managed to get in plenty of photo opportunities. Carry your camera equipment in a backpack. If you’re on a favela tour, follow your guide’s instructions and tips on etiquette.

More on Brasilia, Rio, and Sao Paulo later.