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International Travel Again: A Budget Brazilian Breakaway

This article means a lot to me. I recently had the honour and privilege to travel to Brazil, a country that doesn’t always receive the most positive press coverage or benefit from the rosiest reputation.

What I found was a great country, one that had many visible problems, but was nonetheless filled with kindhearted and welcoming people, vibrant culture, and experiences I would trade any and all of my Miles & Points for again in the future.

It’s also filled with European cars, which to me looked kinda funny and small

I’d like to dedicate my ruminations herein to my good friend, guide, and official Brazilian in-house counsel Dan. If you ever need to explore the country (or need legal assistance), he’s the man. I will forever toast our epic origin story which must remain confidential for privacy purposes.

I apologize in advance that my photography skills are lacking. I’ve always been more about enjoying my trip than cataloguing it in photos. I also dropped my phone SD-card first into a tankard of Brahma lager. Please forgive the fact that not everything survived.

What I value along my travels may also differ a bit from many of you, attracted as I am to stodgy historical monuments over shining beaches. I hope that you’ll find some value despite my inherent boringness.

The Journey to Brazil

My trip started with a brief four-hour hop from Edmonton to Toronto, where I stayed for two days spend some time with friends and family. After a few days in the Big Smoke (where I successfully passed my COVID test – phew), it was time to go to my tropical paradise. 

As luck would have it, Air Canada recently began flying direct flights from Toronto to São Paulo (or, as I joke, the Brazilian version of Toronto) on their Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner. I had to partake, even if it was on a redeye.

The flight was comfortable and involved lie-flat seats. I got to indulge in terrible Ben Affleck movies paired with ever-flowing wine and fine dining on porcelain servicewear. It’s good to see business class back to its pre-pandemic heyday.

From São Paulo, I flew into Rio de Janeiro on GOL Airlines. That was a flying bus if ever I saw one. It wasn’t fancy, but it was quick, efficient, and if you ever find yourself in Brazil, quite cheap on cash.

Had I known the fares, I wouldn’t have bothered adding the GOL segments on my Aeroplan ticket, but paid out of pocket!

At Rio International Airport (GIG), my friend Dan picked me up and introduced me to the zaniness of Rio traffic, which was compounded by the fact that I had landed on September 7, Brazilian Independence Day. 

There was a big political protest in support of the controversial President Bolsonaro. Green-clad protestors milled around everywhere and made the drive along Avenida Atlântica (already often laden with traffic) to my room at the JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro nigh-impossible.

It was like this pretty much all day long

When at last we arrived, check-in was quick and smooth. I haggled with the currency exchange lady to get a decent rate (about 3.85 Brazilian reais to the Canadian dollar) and took off into the town.

As an aside: I highly recommend using Uber if you ever go to Brazil, as the subway can be unsafe or at the very least confusing. In future sojourns, I’ll spend more time getting public transport down pat. 

10 Days in Rio de Janeiro

Rio de Janeiro has a reputation as a crime hotspot. It’s a city that can be dangerous for foreign tourists and domestic residents alike. 

Personally, like Ricky on his previous trips, I was guided to the safer parts of town – but I also made a point of always keeping situationally aware, remaining where it was brightly lit, and calling Uber early and often. I recommend the same level of caution for any traveller.

The first thing I learned very quickly after landing was that I had messed up in my choice of neighbourhood to stay in. Yes, Copacabana is home to a gorgeous Atlantic beach. Yes, it is safe, patrolled often by large numbers of police. Yes, it is home to lots of world-class restaurants.

Unfortunately, it’s also expensive (especially by Brazilian standards), and dining out has prices that are only a little lower than those in Canada. Therefore, I found myself routinely leaving Copa to do anything I was interested in. 

For example, an equally nice area is found in the safe and upper middle-class neighbourhood of Barra de Tijuca, where my local friend lives. It’s a bit far out, but its long streets, open roads, and plentiful beaches are reminiscent of a Brazilian Miami. 

None of this compromised my 10-night itinerary from being action-packed and chocked full of events and activities. That very first night I was whisked away for caipirinhas and dancing.

Everything was a bit quieter because of the holiday, but in Brazil quiet is a relative term. People are passionate and fond of speaking boisterously with both their hands and voices. The “quiet night” turned into a first morning in Brazil of headaches and ibuprofen.

I was also delighted the first night to find out that credit card acceptance in Brazil is very high. While American Express is only taken at select upscale locations, I had zero issues using the heck out of my Chase Sapphire Preferred and having it code correctly as 3x at restaurants and bars!

The next day, we took some time to explore Centro, the downtown of Rio. There were many open-air stalls and street vendors, and it was busy! Centro empties out in the evening and becomes a bit sketchy, so we were long gone by sunset.

City Hall

Then, there was some more partying. Apparently we made a stop at the famous Explorer cocktail bar. To be frank, I can’t really remember anything but eating grilled meat at about 2am. Fun times.

I won’t bore you with the details: most nights pretty much resembled the format of drinks, followed by more drinks, followed by a late dinner, followed by fresh coconut water, followed by heavy sleeping until lunch time.

This was facilitated by relatively lax COVID-19 restrictions. Many areas, such as government buildings, required masks and distancing. Much of life, however, has returned to the status quo ante pandemic. I did have to provide proof of vaccination for many venues, and my Alberta Health records worked without issue.

The old Supreme Court

During the days, though, I made a point of exploring the heck out of Rio.

The first place that stood out was the Copacabana Fortress, a fortification of historical repute and also the launching point of the most famous attempted military coup in Brazilian history (and when you consider how many of those there have been, that’s saying something).

It’s also home to the Armed Forces museum, which outlines the history of the Brazilian military, and includes historical relics such as the medals of the great national hero Field Marshal Luis Alves de Lima e Silva, Duke of Caxias. 

The old general’s title, which roughly translates to “austere” or “disciplinarian”, summed him up exactly

We also attempted to visit all of the beautiful Romanesque public buildings in Centro over the next couple days. Unfortunately, we could only access a handful, as the rest were being used as COVID immunization or testing sites. 

That didn’t stop us seeing many incredible locations, I was flabbergasted by the beauty of the Presidential Palace from the time of the First Republic in the late 19th century; the Supreme Court, with its murals of Justinian and Cicero; and the allegedly-haunted Municipal Theatre House.

The absolute highlight of my trip came toward the end. This was when we visited the old imperial summer retreat of Petropolis. It’s a little-known fact, but Brazil declared independence as an Empire – with the same royal House of Bragança as their former colonial overlords in Portugal! 

Located high in the mountains about 90 minutes outside Rio, Petropolis was a sight to behold. Settled by large quantities of German immigrants, it has a noticeably Teutonic style, and blends the old-world styles beautifully with the local foliage.

Alas, photography was not allowed at the old Imperial Residence, but I hope my shots of the mountains will do it some justice. Plus, the old city itself was pure class: stone construction, cobblestones, and the aforementioned German architecture. As a famously safe city, I’ll definitely be staying a few nights on my next trip.

Culinary Delights

I’ll level with you: I always consider how I’m going to stuff my face before travelling somewhere. A few years ago, I got indigestion gorging on ćevapi in Serbia.

Brazil, famous as it is for grilled churrasco, seafood, and black beans, gave me high expectations. They were completely surpassed in every single way.

There were so many places to eat I can’t make a note of all of them, but I will say the JW Marriott’s breakfast buffet impressed, as always. It introduced me to Brazilian French toast, rabanada, which is more like a cinnamon-coated bannock. 

I will go completely bonkers if I cannot find a replacement in Edmonton. They are that good.

As for other standouts, I got to enjoy the delight of the Brazilian “weighed buffet” – a buffet style where you just put stuff on your plate and they charge you a set price. I loaded it to the brim once with sushi and chicken. It was $6. Sold.

There were lots of grilled meat restaurants of varying price points and quality, but the place that really stood out to me was a small local chain called Galeto Sat’s. There, I feasted upon their signature roasted chicken, which would shame Swiss Chalet, as well as other Brazilian staples such as picanha, a unique cut of steak.

Picanha pictured here. This was about $21.

Every dish Galeto served was accompanied by veritable mountains of rice, farofa (a type of fried flour), french fries, and molho a campanha (a Brazilian pico de gallo). The price? No more than $20 (CAD), for two people, with drinks!

I’d also like to note the Brazilian approach to international cuisine. One night, I treated myself and Dan to Restaurante Mee at the Copacabana Palace, which is the swankiest hotel in Rio and possibly Brazil. The restaurant has a Michelin star and ran about $240 per person.

Normally, this kind of price would be verboten. But I had to consider that for this amount, I was getting a 10-course gourmet tasting menu complete with premium wines and sake. 

This would be at a minimum double to triple that in Japan, and can’t even be found in Canada, devoid as we are of Michelin stars. For one night, the splurge was worth it. The food was divine and had a uniquely Brazilian twist on Japanese classics.

Fish with savoury broth

However, the real standout of the journey was Restaurant Dim Sum, the only dim sum restaurant in Rio. This place is a hole-in-the-wall stall run by a Brazilian chef who trained in Singapore, and is now passing on his incredible Chinese cooking skills to his daughter.

Dan and I gorged ourselves on enormous quantities of dim sum of excellent quality, prepared fresh for us and served personally by the chef. The price was barely $50 for two, and we ate a lot. You can’t get that kind of attention or portion size in Canada for double that.

When it comes to drinking, I had a lot of fun ,but I want to remind people to always enjoy their liquor responsibly. I overindulged on my trip, and by the end realized it was time to cut back a little. However, none of this should take away from the classy sipping culture found in Brazil.

Petropolis, for example, was filled with microbreweries, none of which I was smart enough to visit. I will be rectifying that on my next trip.

I did get some respect for drinking cachaça though – that’s the local raw sugarcane spirit. Brazilians seem to be of one of two minds with the stuff.

Many despise cachaça as being ickier than your worst college memories of tequila. Then there are those who love it out of a cocktail of delight for its unique muskiness and national pride. I find myself falling into the second category.

The Return Journey

Sadly, all good things must come to an end. On my last day in Brazil, I made my way to the airport in sullen silence wondering why I had to leave. Upon arrival at GIG, I checked into my flight, entered the totally empty Plaza Premium Lounge, and slept for a few hours.

Upon landing in São Paulo by lunch time, I thought I could check into my flight before heading to the lounge for the afternoon and catching my red-eye flight after a final farewell Guaraná.

Nope. Due to COVID, in Brazil you must physically check into your flight. And how long would it be until Air Canada staff came to the airport to check-in passengers? Another four hours! That really soured my last day, and reminded me to check my connecting flights more carefully in future.

After a few hours in the terminal eating and finding a (paid) lounge to relax at, I got my boarding pass and crossed security. Then, I finally got to enjoy the São Paulo lounges before flying back to Toronto and then Edmonton. It was a very long 24 hours, but it was good to get back home.

My Tally and Budget Rating

Ultimately, I spent 155,000 Aeroplan points round-trip for Edmonton–Toronto–Rio de Janeiro and back again. I’d assess this as being a bit steep considering the routing; after all, on all-partner airlines, one can easily fly in business class for 60,000 Aeroplan points each way.

Alas, there were no partner airlines doing direct flights, and the Edmonton–Toronto domestic leg kicked up the price. For me, I dislike the agony of super long flights and time in transit, and paid the premium for that. 

Next time, I’ll definitely keep some legs (such as short hops within Brazil) as cash on local carriers so as to save the points for better redemptions.

A caveat: many local Brazilian services will require a CPF (akin to a SIN in Canada or ITIN/SSN in the US) to book online. This can be true of airlines, so it’s good to book in advance or even go through the process of getting a CPF, which I intend to do on my next journey.

I will also be reporting back on whether getting a rumoured promotional no-fee/low fee Brazilian-issued American Express Platinum Card is possible via Global Transfer.

Nova Credit, anyone?

I also spent around US$100 per night for my 10 nights at the JW Marriott. In retrospect, as nice as the hotel was and as much as I appreciated the room service and free bottled water, I should have just stayed at an Airbnb

The novelty of staying at a five-star hotel and leveraging my Titanium status at what seemed like a steal of a price made me behave irrationally. If you choose Brazil, don’t make my mistake: stay outside the main tourist areas and shop around more aggressively for lodgings.

What about the cost of eating out?

For about $240 (CAD) I had a Michelin-starred meal with bottomless wine. For $15, I could routinely eat a red meat feast – and there were plenty of places much cheaper the moment I got out of Rio. For less than $5, I could still have a fantastic bite.

This sumptuous dessert for two, for example, was only a couple dollars. And it’s in one of the oldest restaurants in Rio!

Better yet, as a diverse, multiethnic country, Brazil has excellent interpretations of multiple foreign cuisines. In a sentence, it’s a value-seeking foodie’s dream. That alone is enough to get my derrière into a plane back.

Oh, and of course, drinks were cheap. Beer was routinely under $2. Let’s see Doug Ford beat that. Fresh coconut water from the coconut ran even less, and made for a delightful light meal substitute.

I am confident to state that if you use the magic of Miles & Points to get to Brazil, then it will be accommodating to purses and budgets of any size. You could easily have a wonderful time for as low as a couple hundred dollars. 

Once again, $16.

Even though I feel as if I overpaid on the flights and hotel, the actual value once in-country was truly second to none.

Conclusion

I wouldn’t have thought of visiting Brazil if I didn’t have a friend on the ground to show me around. There is no part of me that regrets making the hop over, though.

As much as the cost in terms of points was annoying, and as hard as I kick myself for staying true to Marriott when Airbnb would have been sufficient, the trip was still a resounding success.

Brazil isn’t a perfect country. It’s one with lots of issues, with real poverty, and with a streak of danger. But it’s also honest. It felt real and lived in, and their rich history was one I greatly enjoyed learning about.

Brazilians, whatever their ethnicity or creed, are friendly, intelligent, and proud people who represent a unique fusion of European, African, and Indigenous cultures. They have a beautiful country I was lucky to be welcomed into. I ate like a king and adventured like a conquistador.

If you like to travel a bit more on the wild side, I highly recommend you visit here and remember that you could spend a lifetime exploring the country. Next time, I’m hoping Dan is down to show me around parts of the Amazon.

9 Comments
  1. TIm

    Hi Kirin,
    I have a similar trip in May except leaving from Calgary. Since GOL seems to have only economy for intra-Brazil and you booked in J, did you have any issues on the return trip checking in at GIG being charged baggage fees and all that?

  2. don

    does Brazil still have an onerous visa requirement for Canadian entry?

    1. Ricky YVR

      Visa-free since 2019 as I recall.

  3. Diego

    I’m not sure if the Amex global transfer will work as the Amex cards in Brasil are all issued by two banks, Bradesco and Santander. I’m pretty sure that the global transfer only works for countries where Amex issues the cards.

    The Platinum card does not have too many benefits, compared to the Canadian version, it has an annual fee of $1440 reis, $270 CAD right now, gives you unlimited access to Amex Centurion lounges and 2 access to Priority Pass for the one issued by Santander and the Bradesco Amex Platinum Metal. The non-metal version from Bradesco does not have access to Priority Pass. The Platinum Cards issued by Bradesco also get unlimited access to the Bradesco lounges in Brasil.

    For FX fees on the cards are 4.7% or 5.1% for Santander and Bradesco respectively plus there is a 6.38% FX fee imposed by the government so the total FX fees are 11.08% and 11.48%.

    The Platinum card earns a flat 2.2 points per USD that can be transferred to:
    Santander Amex’s: to Esfera or Livelo
    Bradesco Amex’s: Livelo

    Livelo is a loyalty program of a mix of banks while Esfera is only from Santander.

    Esfera can transfer to: Gol’s Smiles, Azul’s Tudo Azul, and Latam’s Latam Pass at a 1:1 ratio and to Iberia Plus at a rate of 2:1 (you can transfer from Iberia to BA)

    Livelo can transfer to: Gol’s Smiles, Azul’s Tudo Azul, and Latam’s Latam Pass, Tap Miles & Go, and IHG at a 1:1 ratio, and to United Mileage Club, Aeromexico Club Premier, British Airways Avios, Iberia Plus, Etihad Guest, and Air France/KLM Flying Blue at a rate of 2:1, and Accor Live Limitless at a rate of 2.5:1.

    You might be able to get the points from Brasil transferred to a Candian Amex account in which case the 2.2 points per USD would get you 2.8 Candain Amex Points per USD spent. But because of the high FX fees, it would not make sense unless you spent time in Brasil.

    The sign-up bonus is also not that great, the best you will get is 10k points unless you get the centurion card, which has a sign-up bonus of 300k.

    And from what I can understand the global transfer only works for these countries:Argentina, Australia, Austria, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, Thailand, United Kingdom, United States of America.

  4. Mitch

    Fantastic write up. I would like all of that food directly in my mouth pronto.

    1. Eli lima

      Kirin, welcome kirin, welcome to Brazil, you’ve only seen a beautiful part of Brazil, we have much more to show you and for those who enjoy a lot of beauty in every way. Thank you very much, come whenever you want.

  5. L

    Nice that you enjoyed Rio. A few suggestions, from a brazilian who lives in Calgary, for your next trip: Florianópolis, Bonito, Foz do Iguaçu and Fernando de Noronha.

    1. Kirin

      Thanks for your insight! I’d love to learn a little bit more about these places – feel free to drop me a line at kirin@princeoftravel.com!

      1. Diego

        I have lived in Florianópolis in the past and it is really nice, it is an island with 48 beaches and 2 lakes. I would recommend you to go there especially if you like live music, hiking or going to the beach.

Kirin Tsang

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