When we booked our trip we thought we would need some clean-up and decompression time after roughing it in the Pantanal for three nights, so we booked a couple of nights in Sao Paolo at a nice hotel prior to heading on to Panama. We originally booked the Grand Hyatt, then we switched over to the Renaissance. In both cases we couldn't figure out why the hotels were so freaking expensive, bordering on $400 a night!?! Well, it turns out there is a Formula 1 race in Sao Paolo this weekend... Fortunately, Jie found a last minute deal on a local luxury hotel, L'Hotel, for about half the price of the other two. It was in a great location right off Av. Paulista and set us up for an unexpectedly great two nights in Sao Paolo.
We did have a little bit of travel drama on arrival in Sao Paolo. We got in late, landing at 10:30p and arriving at the hotel at almost midnight. Then after getting almost entirely settled in (Walter was in bed in PJs) we realized the toilet didn't work. They had no maintenance on staff so at 12:45 we packed up all our stuff and switched rooms. All in all not a big deal, just a bit of a hassle, but we did wind up in a better room on a higher floor.
We spent our day in Sao Paolo walking around Av. Paulista before heading to the Liberdade neighborhood, home to the sizable Japanese population, supposedly the biggest outside of Japan. It did feel a lot like being in Tokyo and we had lunch in a great little sushi joint that was very reminiscent of places we went to in Japan. Not quite as good fish and much more expensive, but still a great experience.
After returning to the hotel for a mid-afternoon nap we went to the Vila Madalena neighborhood to check out the famous Boca de Batman (pronounced less like the superhero and more like Bachman) street lined with grafitti. The whole area had a great East Austin vibe to it and we had a great time walking around, checking out various shops and live music venues, and even meeting some of the grafitti artists as they worked on a new mural. See below for a sample of the grafitti art we saw, and head over to smugmug for much more: https://markandjie.smugmug.com/Gap-Year/Sao-Paolo/
A few thoughts on Brazil
Sao Paolo marks the end of our stay in Brazil, and it's been a fantastic one, easily one of my favorite countries we've visited this year. We have consistently found the people to be extremely welcoming and friendly, a big contrast to many of the countries in Europe. Anytime I stopped and examined my map it was quite common for people to stop and ask (in Portuguese) if they could help. Further, the understanding of celiac and gluten-free was also very good. Most of the staff at the various restaurants and hotels were familiar with the term and products were well-labeled with "sem gluten" or "com gluten." Indeed, at the Sao Paolo sushi joint they had three bottles of soy sauce at every table: regular, low sodium, and gluten free.
One of the reasons I think we enjoyed Brazil so much is that our trip was so varied in nature. Rio was all about beaches and more nature-oriented sights, Igauzu and Pantanal speak for themselves, and then Sao Paolo was the only truly urban destination. A big contrast from Europe which became repititive after a time (town square, churches, palaces, repeat). And we only scratched the surface of what Brazil has to offer. While I don't know that I'd return to Rio, I would love to come back and see the Amazon and the beaches on the northern coast of the country. Perhaps we'll do so and catch some of the Olympics while we're here.
One final thought: I think a lot of people go to Europe instead of South America because Europe is much safer and it's more familiar. That's definitely true, but I think it's also short-sighted. Would you think twice about going to Chicago? No, you wouldn't, but you also wouldn't walk alone at night in some parts of town that are perfectly safe during the day. And there are some neighborhoods you wouldn't go to at any time of day. Well, Rio or Sao Paolo are no different, and just as in Chicago the cab drivers and other locals will look out for you and keep you out of bad areas at the wrong time. The most uncomfortable we have been on our travels is still an underpass near the bus station in Riga, Lithuania, and nothing else comes close (nor do I think we were in danger in Riga). So I don't think safety is an entirely valid reason to stay away. As for familiarity, yes, South America feels quite different than the US or Europe, but not as much as you might think. The biggest difference is the scarcity of English speakers, but with a little bit of Google Translate we never encountered a situation we couldn't successfully stumble our way through.
In summary, go to Brazil. See Iguazu, see the Pantanal or the Amazon, relax on a beach. You won't regret it.