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Nightlife in Rio de Janeiro’s Lapa Bairro

View from the soundboard over the crowd towards the stage at a busy music show.
Reggae band Groundation plays at Lapa’s Fundição Progresso. Photo by Didie C. licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

After long decades of being down and (very) out, Rio’s former bohemian quarter par excellence got a new lease on life by retransforming itself into the city’s undisputed hot spot to listen and dance to live music.

Starting Thursdays, its many bars, clubs, and narrow streets (particularly Rua Joaquim Silva) pulse with a variety of rhythms, revelers from every Carioca bairro, and an increasing number of tourists. Although not quite as edgy as it used to be, Lapa still rules Rio’s musical roost.


Bars

Like Centro, Lapa has some wonderful old botequins that have survived from its heyday, whose walls, if they could talk, would surely have a lot of stories to tell. Bar Brasil (Av. Mem de Sá 90, 21/2509-5943) is a neighborhood institution, serving German food such as eisbein, kassler, and sauerkraut—perfect between sips of frothy beer. The canvases on the walls are by Chilean artist Jorge Selarón, who is responsible for the mosaic-covered staircase that leads up to Santa Teresa.

Around since 1966, family-owned Boteco Carioquinha (Av. Gomes Freire 822, 21/2252-3025) recently emerged from a major renovation in which the decor and the drinks menu received an overhaul. You can now select some decent wines and homegrown microbrewery beers to accompany the finger-licking, gut-expanding platters of food named after various Rio neighborhoods.

Dating from 1903, Nova Capela (Av. Mem de Sá, 21/2252-6228) is the only one of Lapa’s old-time botequins that stays open into the wee hours. If you’re feeling hungry, try the house specialty: cabrito com arroz-de-brocolis (roasted goat kid with broccoli rice).


Live Music and Nightclubs

In Lapa’s streets and renovated old buildings you’ll encounter an astonishing diversity of music, and as revitalization of this bairro continues unabated, new bars and clubs are opening all the time. The majority are on Rua do Lavradio and Rua Mem de Sá. For listings and schedules of all performances and events in Lapa, check out Lana Lapa.

One of the city’s most enchanting bars, Rio Scenarium (Rua do Lavradio 20, 21/3147-9005) is perpetually packed, often with tourists. If it’s lost some of its cachet (lots of gringos trying to samba), it’s retained its unique charm. Located on Lapa’s antiques row, Rio Scenarium’s three floors are chock-full of antiques, which are rented out to film and TV productions—you can sit, sprawl, and lounge upon certain pieces while others are merely eye candy. On most nights, top names in samba, choro, and forró perform, inciting the mixed clientele to take to the dance floor. Arrive early (before 8 p.m.) or reserve a table because the place gets packed.

Carioca da Gema (Rua Mem de Sá 79, 21/2221-0043) is a classic spot to listen to top quality samba and choro performed by big names and rising stars. The ambiance is warm and rustic and there is a copious menu.

Clube dos Democráticos (Rua do Riachuelo 91, 21/2252-4611) has been around since 1867. Started by three friends who bought it with winnings from a lottery ticket, the Clube served as headquarters for one of Rio’s most high-society Carnaval clubs. Members were a forward-thinking republican and abolitionist bunch (which didn’t stop Emperor Pedro II from partying here) whose bashes were legendary well into the 1940s. Then gradually the animation faded as the house sank into dilapidation. In 2004, a young historian who fell in love with the facade organized a baile that became such a cult hit that dance soirées are now held regularly in the vast ballroom. Music ranges from samba to choro and the crowd is young and eager to strut their stuff.

Also located in a renovated old house, Six Electro (Rua das Marrecas 38, 21/2510-3230) features three floors where you can mellow out to the post-modern likes of trance, drum ’n’ bass, hip-hop, and electronica. The decor mingles medieval and industrial flourishes. Five bars and a pizzeria ensure you’ll have enough to eat and drink.

In Carioca-ese, “40°” refers to the temperature (in Celsius) that descends on the city in the heat of summer. The name is apt: Since Lapa 40° (Rua Riachuelo 97, 21/3970-1329) opened in 2007, this vast four-story building has become Lapa’s hottest spot. More than a bar or nightclub, it is a revolutionary concept—an entertainment complex outfitted with a bar, a ballroom, and a stage for live shows as well as a cybercafé, a tabacaria (for smoking cigars), a uisqueiria (for doing whiskey shots), and dart boards. Oh, and if you get bored, there is an entire floor outfitted with 30 pool and billiard tables.


Excerpted from the Second and Third Edition of Moon Brazil.

Exploring Puerto Vallarta with Robin Noelle

1. Describe your ideal day in Puerto Vallarta.

Starting early and heading south to an out of the way beach like Mayto and having huevos Mexicanos under a palapa on the beach. I love spending the day on deserted beaches, reading and swimming the day away.

2. What sort of aquatic activity should adrenaline junkies seek out in PV?

The scuba diving can be awesome in the Bay of Banderas. Just make sure you go with a good, small company and not a cattle boat. Scuba diving in the summer is nice because you don’t have to wear a wetsuit.

3. There are lots of annual festivals celebrated in Puerto Vallarta. Which is your favorite?

In early December there is the Virgin of Guadalupe celebration with nightly processions to the cathedral. Businesses create floats depicting the virgin and Juan Diego and people follow along wearing white and holding candles. It’s a beautiful event and there’s lots of great music and street food.

4. What are your top three hotels in the Puerto Vallarta area?

For an over the top luxury experience, I’d go with El Tamarindo to the south. For a rustic and unique experience, Tailwind Outdoors in San Pancho is great with their platform and canvas tent accommodations that are right in the jungle. Playa Escondida in Sayulita is my favorite for affordable luxury with their private beach, funky bungalows and great food.

5. You’re down to your last five dollars in Puerto Vallarta—where can you find a great meal?

Depending on the exchange rate, you can get the awesome smoked marlin burrito at Tacon de Marlin in El Centro that is big enough to share ($70 pesos), or I’d grab three tacos al pastor and a coke at Pepe’s next door. You can also try one of the taco stands in Zona Romantica (about $40 pesos).

6. A great deal of effort goes into the preservation of sea turtles in this region. How can a visitor see a sea turtle without disturbing them?

Volunteer for a night with the local conservation group. You can see the turtles firsthand and help save their nests. Plus you get to see the baby turtles as they make their way into the water and out to sea.

7. What is your favorite beach along the Nayarit Coast?

The local beach at El Monteon is my favorite for beach combing and walking the dogs— but it’s terrible for swimming. It’s also great for bird-watching and wildlife viewing (watch out for crocodiles). Chacala is great for swimming and dining if you don’t mind the crowds from the daily tour buses. Platinitos, located just north on the way to San Blas, is also great with a nice beach, good food and lots of parking minus the tour groups.

8. What’s the best way to get a feel for the history of Puerto Vallarta and its surrounding areas?

Get out of the tourist areas. Take a day trip to the mountains and visit San Sebastian, Mascota and Talpa. It’s worth the trip even if you go with a tour, but it’s much better discovering it on your own. Rent a car or go with some local friends if you can. Those little towns are still relatively untouched and can give you a great sense of history. Look for little museums and historical information off of the main squares.

9. What’s the ultimate souvenir to pick up in Puerto Vallarta?

I don’t know about the ultimate souvenir (for me it’s my collection of urchin skeletons that I’ve collected from the bottom of the ocean) but the most practical is a bottle of tequila or Kailua. The hammocks are nice too, for a little bit of the tropics in your backyard at home.

10. What’s Puerto Vallarta’s best kept secret?

That there’s a whole world outside of the Romantic and Hotel zones that doesn’t include perfectly manicured lawns and swimming pools. There are areas where people live without the basics that we take for granted, some without even basic sanitation or electricity. It doesn’t hurt to give a little back when you are vacation, so treat the people with respect and tip frequently and generously. A few pesos doesn’t mean much to your average tourist but it makes a big difference to the people who live and work there. Oh, and the zoo. Make sure you visit the zoo and hold the baby tigers. It’s a must.

Beating the Bank: ATMs in Argentina & Chile

Since late July, the Argentine banking networks Link and Banelco have imposed ATM charges of 11.45 pesos (approximately US$3) on every withdrawal by foreign customers. As banks struggle in the current financial crisis, of course, it’s unsurprising to see them try to milk every possible penny out of their customers, but the Argentine case has had a special characteristic: it was combined with a withdrawal limit of 300 pesos (about US$79) per transaction. Anyone using Link or Banelco ATMs could do at least three consecutive transactions, but this would have meant an additional US$3 fee for each transaction (as it did at the Palermo branch of Banco Supervielle, around the corner from our Buenos Aires apartment). Under those regulations, anyone spending a month in Argentina might easily have accumulated an additional US$100 in bank charges (in addition to those imposed by their own banks for using an out-of-system ATM).

Fortunately, there is a (sort of) happy ending. Under pressure, apparently, from international banks, Link and Banelco have been forced to rescind the 300-peso limit—it is now possible to withdraw at least 800 pesos per transaction, and perhaps more. The ATM charge of 11.45 pesos still holds, but that’s a lesser concern if there’s only a single transaction rather than three.

It’s worth repeating, meanwhile, that Argentine ATMs generally pass out large banknotes that can be difficult to change. This is a good reason to request an uneven amount such as 790 pesos, to ensure that you will get some smaller bills.

For a time, Argentine two-peso notes were supposedly in short supply because of a TV promotion – an Argentine station had been conducting a sort of lottery based on serial numbers. While that shortage may not be so obvious, finding sufficient coins for small purchases continues to be difficult, so having the proper change to board a city bus or pay for a newspaper is still a problem.

Meanwhile, in Chile, the Redbanc system has imposed ATM charges of 2000 to 2500 pesos (about US$4 to US$5) per transaction, but it has never even tried to enforce the sorts of withdrawal limits that their Argentine counterparts have. According to some Chilean residents, though, Banco Estado, Banco Desarollo/Scotiabank, and Corpbanca still do not collect additional ATM fees on foreign debit cards.

In fact, on arrival in Santiago yesterday, I was able to withdraw 200,000 pesos (about US$400) from a Banco Estado ATM with no service charge, but anyone using ATMs here should still pay attention to the instructions (which are invariably available in English as well). The first ATM I tried had told me that, if I continued with the transaction, it would collect a 2500-peso charge. I declined to continue.

Solid Deals on Last-Minute US Travel this November

Scoring a deep discount on last-minute airfare is every procrastinator’s dream. But even early birds can rejoice when patience pays off—literally—in savings on their plane tickets. Orbitz just posted some great last-minute fare reductions on cross-country air travel, now through December 7th. I found a roundtrip JFK–SFO nonstop flight on Alaska Airlines for only $258, a savings of almost $100 compared to the average ticket price, and an especially great deal during the busy pre-holiday season. In addition to flights from New York City and San Francisco, look for reduced fares from Los Angeles and Boston, too.

In addition to aggregators like Orbitz, I’ve found some amazing bargains from Travelzoo.com‘s weekly Top 20 newsletter. Case in point: rooms at the W San Francisco, one of my favorite places to stay in the city, for $159—normally a standard room is about twice that price. (If you’re hitting the Big Apple this fall, a similar deal applies at the original W Hotel in Midtown Manhattan, too—enter the rate code LTOTZOCT.)

So where do you go for the best travel deals and discounts? If you’ve got a go-to spot for travel deals, or just got a great discount on your trip this fall, I want to know! Here’s to a merry and economical end to 2009.

Is Guatemala’s Lake Atitlan dying?

Lake Atitlán. Photo © Al Argueta.
Lake Atitlán. Photo © Al Argueta.

Guatemalans and foreign residents have been appalled by news reports pointing to an invasion of cianobacteria that recently made an appearance as a cloudy green gulag on the lake’s surface. One Guatemalan friend with a lakeside house likened the news to the sadness of a dying relative or friend.

For years, environmental organizations have been blowing the whistle on rising pollution levels in Lake Atitlan’s waters. Particularly disturbing is the flow of untreated sewage into the lake from several communities on its shores. A sewage treatment plant was destroyed a few years ago in the aftermath of hurricane Stan but was never rebuilt.

In recent days, environmental groups, local residents and authorities have met to try and come up with solutions to the problem and the Guatemalan government has announced multi-million dollar actions to help save Lake Atitlan. International scientists are studying this new phenomenon in an attempt to verify toxicity levels and implement solutions.

Lake Amatitlan, near Guatemala City, suffered a similar fate in the past but pollution levels there have been curtailed in recent years.

On a positive note, this latest development might be the much-needed wake-up call to get Guatemalans to make the conservation of Lake Atitlan an urgent matter.

Travel map of Lake Atitlán, Guatemala
Lake Atitlán

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