Travel guide to mysterious Easter Island: Moai statues, aliens & cannibals! Day tour with guide & driver.
Greetings, my fellow aliens… I’ve arrived on Easter Island!
Since childhood, I’ve dreamed of visiting this mysterious island of moai. 🗿 How did these stone-faces come to be, on a tiny hidden isle? Did extraterrestrials have anything to do with these strange statues?
Follow me to Easter Island, and we’ll discover the ancient rituals and culture of the Rapa Nui.
“Isla de Pascua” is basically in the middle of nowhere. It’s an island the size of Manhattan, located in the southeast Pacific Ocean and far from any other civilization.
In one sense, reaching Rapa Nui is easy — because there are only two flights! You can fly from Bora Bora, Tahiti or Santiago, Chile on LATAM Airlines. I did the latter, and it still took 5.5 hours each way.
Because of the remoteness, Easter Island is a place very few people get to visit. On the plus side, the lack of mass tourism has preserved the alien vibe; as I went around, I felt as if I were exploring a new planet.
I’m sure you are curious about where to stay, and what to eat — but we’ll cover that in another post. For now, let’s dive right in and say hello to the stone-faced moai. (Do you see them in the distance? All photos by Joey Wong.)
Although Easter Island is tiny, the main attractions are spread out and can’t be accessed by foot. Many people rent bicycles or cars, but I’ve never gotten on a bike in the history of this blog, and I didn’t want to stress about driving directions and potentially crash into a stone head!
Instead, I highly recommend booking a custom or small-group tour. We’re very glad we did a day-trip with Easter Island Travel, as we only had a few days to explore. Our expert guide drove us to all the major sites, knew the best hours / spots to take stunning photos, and riveted us with tales from ancient times.
We joined the Journey of Legends tour, which covers all the highlights of central and southwestern Rapa Nui. Every tour is capped at 8 people maximum, so we had plenty of flexibility, and our guide was always available to answer questions.
(Easter Island Travel also took us to the famous spots Tongariki and Rano Raraku on a different day; I’ll show you that later as well.)
After a morning pick-up from our hotel, our first stop was Ahu Nau Nau. What a feeling, to see these stone statues up-close… I greeted them with a Hail Moai!
What’s the deal with the moai on this isolated island? Between 1250 and 1500, the Rapa Nui carved over 900 monolithic figures (representing ancestors and their sacred power), and placed them on “ahu” or platforms. The faces have a district, minimalist flat look that is recognizable worldwide.
It’s remarkable that ancient tribes were able to complete such advanced feats of engineering. To this day, there remain many unanswered questions about the moai. No wonder conspiracy theorists ponder whether aliens put them there.
When you’re in such an “out there” destination, you’d might as well dress the part.
This intergalactic space jacquard dress is by House of Holland, the young avantgarde UK designer. They also created this rocket ship wrap dress from the same Space collection. Click below for more of House of Holland’s futuristic designs:
The moai are found all over Isla de Pascua; some are half-finished, or lying down as if they are sleeping. Many were placed in rows on “ahu” platforms, like these six.
I asked my Easter Island Travel guide — are the stone people wearing hats? Researchers actually think that these “pukao” represent topknots (the hairstyle) — although they look more like cute hats to me, especially the conical one. The pukao are made of red scoria, a more fragile volcanic rock, which is why many of them broke over the years.
Ahu Nau Nau is the best-preserved moai site on Easter Island. After 1722, Rapa Nui society began to collapse (due to clan clashes, lack of resources, and the arrival of European explorers). During these conflicts, all the stone-faces were toppled. Many broke beyond repair, but these ones were left buried in the sand, which fortunately protected them from erosion.
(My hair color and cut are by Chad Michael Evans at Kore Salon Vancouver.)
These statues are located at Anakena beach, the most lovely stretch of sand on the island. It’s one of only two beaches on this otherwise rocky terrain. Travellers and locals come here to swim and sunbathe on the white coral sand.
Up close, you can see the differences between the moai; each has his own distinct vibe and “personality.” Some think they were carved to commemorate ancestors, and customized to represent that individual.
Around Ahu Nau Nau, you’ll find remnants of other pukao (the hats or topknots) and moai. If only this decapitated head could talk, and let us know why he ended up on a pile of rocks…
(My oil slick Jungle boots are by Underground England. See more of their subculture-inspired shoes below):
The backs of these moai have geometric relief carvings, depicting depict a belt, spirals and symbols. These decorations might represent tattoos or body paintings.
At Anakena Beach, you can also gaze upon Ahu Ature. This lonely moai stands alone on a platform. He’s an older model, which is why he has a broader and less refined appearance. (Or perhaps he represents an ancestor who happened to be a stockier fellow!)
I was glad we were traveling with Easter Island Travel — we didn’t need to worry about getting around. The day trip was optimized to visit sites when the light conditions were best for photography as well. (All images by Joey Wong.)
Onward to Puna Pau, a quarry inside a small extinct volcano crater. All of the pukao (moai red hats / topknots) come from this location, on the outskirts of Hanga Roa.
(How wonderfully strange are the landscapes of Easter Island?)
Easter Island’s bizarre landscapes are partly due to the lack of trees and shrubs. The Rapa Nui eventually cut down all the native palms, as the island had limited resources; sadly, the depleted ecosystem led to the collapse of their civilization. Today, rainwater still drains quickly through the porous volcanic soil, so these dry conditions are not ideal for vegetation.
Fun fact: the people of Easter Island most likely turned to cannibalism, in a last-ditch effort to survive. With ongoing warfare and deforestation, human flesh became one of the only remaining sources of food. Our guide told us about words in the local language that reference this cannibalistic past, such as Ana Kai Tangata: “the cave where men were eaten.”
Another fun fact: I became enamored with Easter Island after playing “Super Mario Land,” which features moai-like enemies and landscapes!
The curving green hills beneath blue skies and clouds look like a backdrop from a Mario Bros. video game. I half-expected a TokoToko to sprint into me, or a Batadon to hop onto my head.
From Puna Pau, you’ll get this spectacular view of the strange land and ocean at all sides.
We’re in the South Pacific, so it’s hot out here. Be sure to wear sunglasses and lots of sunscreen, and hydrate when you’re out on a day tour. I also wore a hat, or hid beneath a parasol between taking photos!
Our small group piled back into the van, and we headed to Ahu Akivi: the only monument with moais that look out towards the ocean. All of the other statues face inward, as if they are watching over the villages and locals.
In contrast, these seven moai face outward at the water, for unknown reasons. Legend says they are helping seafarers find the island, or that they are seven loyal men waiting for their king to arrive.
My rocket and stars dress isn’t the only celestial element out here. The 16th century Aku Akivi is also an observatory: the row of moai face sunset during the Spring Equinox, and have their backs to the sunrise during the Autumn Equinox. Amazing how these tribes were able to make such advanced calculations.
One of the biggest mysteries of Easter Island: how did the Rapa Nui move these huge, heavy moai into place? After all, the tallest statue erected on the isle was 33 feet high, and weighed over 90 tons.
Legends tell of the gods (or aliens) infusing divine power into the moai, which allowed them to walk!
Our guide, Shane, explained that ancient people have been capable of impressive feats of engineering (just think of the Pyramids of Giza). Researchers think the Rapa Nui tied ropes around the upright moai, and “walked” them back and forth until they reached their destination. In his words, “they did a James Brown shuffle for miles!”
(Shane had an accident with his lip, and joked that it left him with a “stone face” much like the moai behind him.)
Today, the porous moai have been preserved and protected with a waterproof spray. Visitors must stay behind barriers, and cannot get too close or touch them. (As this sign indicates: please don’t stomp on the stone faces.)
Shane told us about a tourist who broke off a moai’s ear, and tried to steal it. The incident caused such uproar that the mayor called for “an ear for an ear” as justice. (The man spent some time in jail and paid a heavy fine, and managed to keep all his body parts.)
I obeyed the rules, and kept my distance from the lucky seven. 🗿🗿🗿🗿🗿🗿🗿 (I love how I can legitimately use the moai emoji here.)
Where does the name “Easter Island” come from? In 1722, Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen was the first outsider to arrive on these shores (unfortunately but not surprisingly, the encounter resulted in bloodshed). His ship landed on Easter Day, hence the name.
As you can see, we covered a lot of ground during the Easter Island Travel day tour. Shane drove us to Rano Kau crater, one of the most stunning natural sites here. In ancient times, this was an important source of drinking water, as rainwater accumulated inside the volcanic caldera. Today, as you can see, the 1.5 km long lagoon has a murkier quality.
Feeling like a space invader, in my House of Holland dress. (More designs by this brand below:)
Rano Kau is essentially a giant greenhouse. These conditions encourage the growth of diverse vegetation. The lake is only about 10 meters deep, and covered in totora reeds and other species.
This is also where scientists discovered Rapamycin, a compound derived from a soil bacterium found only on Easter Island. It’s an immunosuppresent, and so far has been used to prevent organ transplant rejections and treat a rare lung disease. Today, body hackers are experimenting with rapamyacin as a supplement for longevity.
Orongo, the ceremonial village and site of the birdman competition, is located next to the crater. After the Rapa Nui abandoned the moai statues, they took on a new cult / belief system called “tantaga manu.” Every year, they held a fierce competition where young men would try to capture the first sooty tern bird egg from the islet of Mota Nui (the largest island on the right).
The race was very dangerous, with perilous cliffs and sharks waiting in the waters. Once the winner had obtained the first egg, he’d swim back and be crowned ruler of Easter Island.
We walked around the 50 oval stone fortresses, where the participants and their sponsors lived while waiting for the right conditions to start the Birdman competition. When the new king returned, he’d stay hidden in one of these houses for a while, gathering his powers.
Today, the moai are back as the rulers of Easter Island! We ended our tour at Tahai, one of the oldest settlements with excavated remains dating back to 700 AD. Tahai consists of three ahu platforms, and is one of the most popular attractions since it’s located near the present capital of Hanga Roa.
“I always feel like somebody’s watching me…” Yes, the moai originally had eyes. This is Ko Te Riku, a re-erected figure with replica eyeballs that give him a slightly creepy look.
In 1979, archaeologists discovered that the moai were designed to hold coral eyes, with either black obsidian or red scoria pupils.
We are still learning unexpected things about the mysterious Rapa Nui. At Tahai, you can also visit a small but interesting anthropological / historical museum called Museo Antropologico P. Sebastian Englert.
The site also features Ahu Vai Uri, which translates to dark water or green water. Its construction dates to 1200 AD, and these five restored moai are a sampling of the different carving styles over the years.
Whether or not you believe in “mana,” the stone faced statues have a powerful energy. Incredible that the moai are found only on this minuscule island, yet they’ve become pop culture symbols worldwide (you know you’ve made it when you have your own emoji! 🗿 )
Tahai also holds the tomb of William Mulloy and his wife Emily Rose. He first came to the island in 1955, and led the most thorough archaeological research of Easter Island in modern times.
Tahai is one of the best places on Easter Island to see the sunset. Grab a drink, sit on the grass and watch the light glow behind the stone men. (All photos by Joey Wong.)
If you ask me, Easter Island is a real life Mario Land! As someone obsessed with obscure cultures and alien-like destinations, this trip was a dream come true.
LATAM Airlines is the only route here (from Santiago or Bora Bora). I found it to be a smooth, timely flight with lots of horror movies on their entertainment system to keep me busy.
Easter Island is rather out-of-the-way in Oceania, but it’s a trip you should try to make at least once in your lifetime. I wish I could take home a giant moai with me (but I settled for tiny stone souvenirs!)
Easter Island Travel’s tours are the best way to see the island. In addition to culture / history journeys, they offer fishing, surfing, a boat trip to Birdman Isle, airport transfers, custom tours, you name it. We’re glad we had a knowledgeable guide to take us to these magical spots.
A last “hail” to the moai. If you’re intrigued by Easter Island, check back as there are two more articles to come!
Are you as fascinated by the stone faces as I am? Do you know anyone else who has traveled here? 🗿🗿🗿
Space Goth Mermaid is the theme of the day… because I’m in colorful Valparaíso, Chile!
“Valpo” is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and boasts some of the best street art in the world. This hip, rainbow-covered city is only a 1.5 hour drive from Santiago — making it a perfect day trip during my LATAM Airlines adventure in South America..
If you’re an art and culture seeker, you will adore Valparaiso’s vibe. Artists from around the world flock to this Chilean port city, to add their works to this open canvas.
Walking around, you’ll come across wall-sized murals, graffiti, found art, 3D installations… sky’s the limit, when it comes to creativity in Valpo.
Santiago is a popular hub for LATAM’s many domestic and international flights. If you’re in the capital of Chile, I urge you to take a day to explore the nearby Valparaiso. It’s an inspiring place to walk around, find unexpected art (some of it with political themes), and take a million photos.
(All images by Joey Wong, other than some iPhone snaps by LC.)
How to travel here: Valparaiso is located 120 kilometers west of Santiago. To get here, we rode the metro (subway) to Santiago’s Pajaritos station, near the end of the red line. Then, we bought roundtrip tickets for the bus that leaves every 30 minutes or so for Valpo. There’s no need to book in advance, as there are plenty of seats especially on weekdays.
Two bus companies, Turbus and Pullman, travel this route for $5-10. Both are about the same price and quality; we went with Turbus, and found ourselves in a modern carrier with comfortable reclining seats. We enjoyed this view of the Chilean mountains, and napped the rest of the way. (The ride is about 1.5 hours.)
When you arrive at Valparaiso bus station, you can look for the tourist information booth in case you have questions. The staff can help you find the local bus stop outside. Ride it to Plaza Sotomayor, the large central square.
From Plaza Sotomayor, you can take the old elevators up the various hills to see street art.
Valparaiso has over 40 hills, stacked with brightly colored houses and public art. There are quite a lot of stairs and slopes, so be sure to wear comfortable shoes and bring sun protection.
I put together a “Space Gothic” outfit of the day. I combined Goth with cyber-galaxy colors that match my hair, as well as the murals around me!
I’m wearing a long Lip Service skirt and top from Salemonster (they have a large selection of alternative brand fashion, at reduced rates!). My pink cat-eye sunglasses are by Irregular Choice. This designer is known for its Rococo fabulous shoes, as you can see below…
If you aren’t keen on walking up and down hills, you can use the funicular “ascensors” built in the 19th century. There are 15 of these rickety metal elevators, which take you up the slopes for a few coins.
Some of Valparaiso’s districts can be a little sketchy (we were warned to be careful with our DSLR camera and belongings). To avoid any issues, I recommend that you stick to the main sightseeing areas. In any case, that’s where you will find most of the street art!
What’s the best way to get around Valparaiso? I recommend that you take the funicular or walk up El Peral. Once you reach the top, you’ll find a glorious view of the water, as well as an old palace and a fine arts museum.
From there, you can stroll around and enjoy the colorful works around you. The murals have wonderfully diverse styles and subjects. As a horror fan, I was delighted to see the Creature from the Black Lagoon!
While you will find street art all over Peral, the main streets are Monte and Cerro Alegre, Capilla, Miramar and especially Templeman.
How did Valpo become a tableau for worldwide artists? Around the 1920s, Mexico had a burgeoning muralism movement. This inspired Chilean poet / diplomat Pablo Neruda to invite artists to come to his city, and get creative.
Valparaiso was already known as the “Jewel of the Pacific” for its beautiful Pacific Ocean setting. However, now it’s best known as a laid-back, hipster destination covered head-to-toe in eclectic art. It’s a great place to art-walk, followed by a leisurely meal of empanadas and pisco sours at a local cafe.
I enjoyed seeing the contrast between old and new. Valparaiso was a major seaport in the 1800s, during Spanish Colonial times. Today, these churches and palaces stand next to quirky murals.
Many local buildings invited artists to decorate their storefronts. I was amazed at the variety of works throughout Valparaiso: from graffiti tags, to intricate portraits, to three-story narratives.
“Aliens welcome.” This sounds like my type of town!
I’m wearing a spider pin that reminded me of the one Cheryl Blossom wears in the Riverdale TV series. My spider brooch got stolen from my luggage.. but thankfully, it was only a $7 pin that I got here!
There’s so much to see in this port city with dozens of hills. Some people join a guided walking tour, in order to see the highlights. We preferred to walk around on our own, and come across gems like this ostrich by chance.
It’s impossible to see all of the paintings in Valparaiso, and artists are constantly creating new works. I enjoyed taking snaps of whatever caught my eye. A drainpipe refashioned as a cat-girl’s mouth, a studio with sculptures made with found objects.
“Herrrreeee’s Johnny!” I’m clearly surprised to see Jack Nicholson from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, one of my favorite horror films. (I even had the VHS tape of it, back in the 9os!)
Some of the most interesting works convey a socio-political message. This one is a graphic commentary on religion and colonialism in South America, and the oppression of native Chileans.
I was impressed by the level of talent found in Valparaiso. There’s a sense of community among the (mostly young) artists as well.
Even the streetlamps and drainpipes get a technicolor makeover.
The local government supports creators with workspaces and resources. The result: glorious murals like this one.
This serene, blue “happy hippie” face was one of my favorites. Note the greenery growing out of his ears!
The pink sunglasses are Irregular Choice; shop more of their designs below:
Not all parts of Valparaiso are accessible for everyone. Be prepared for a lot of walking, including up and down lots of stairs.
How beautiful is this mural? If I came back to Valpo, I’d join a guided tour so that I could learn more about each specific artist.
Look out for the uniquely decorated stairs. This one looks like a kite, if you view it from a distance (see the diamond on my left). Another staircase looks like piano keys.
At the top of ascensor Peral, take a moment to enjoy this panoramic view of the city and bay.
And don’t miss out on the tiny details. Street signs, telephones and other unexpected objects get an artistic transformation here.
How sweet it must be for these local residents, living / working / studying / playing amidst these colorful creations!
These mosaic steps next to the funicular called out for a photoshoot.
As I explored, I took snaps of skeletons and other Gothic creatures (as I thought these would be of interest to you!) Here’s a cheerful fellow riding a bike.
A smiling skull, and two Frankensteins. Is he holding a clam on his fingertip?
Some of the skeletons had an anatomical feeling.
Others reminded me of the naughty Day of the Dead skeletons I saw in Tulum, Mexico.
Chile’s national poet, Pablo Neruda, adored living here. As he put it, “Valparaíso, what an absurdity you are, how crazy: a crazy port. What a head of dishevelled hills, that you never finished combing. Never did you have time to dress yourself, and always you were surprised by life.”
I think Neruda’s words sum up the eccentric atmosphere of Valparaiso today! (If you haven’t seen The Shining movie, you need to rent it.)
Isn’t this “street art city” a wonderland? Have you heard of Valparaiso before this story?
Perhaps these images may inspire you to book a flight to Chile on LATAM Airlines, and climb this rainbow staircase for yourself!
PS: if you enjoyed my space Goth outfit, here are more skeleton styles below. Click the thumbnails for details:
Futuristic Architecture in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil! Museum of Tomorrow, Niemeyer UFO building, Sofitel Ipanema hotel.
If you came across a flying saucer, what would you do? Personally, I’d beam myself in!
I think you can tell I had an (inter)stellar time in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The city turned out to be one of my favorite stops on my LATAM Airlines trip in South America.
Rio is a laid-back destination for anyone interested in Brazilian culture, food and beach life. It’s also home to a few unexpectedly “spacey” attractions that stirred my imagination…
Let’s start inside my spaceship. This cosmic wonder is actually the MAC Niterói Contemporary Art Museum, designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer.
The MAC is located across the water from Rio de Janeiro. To get here, you can take a ferry across the water, or Uber over the sleek bridge to Niteroi.
Oscar Niemeyer is the modernist genius behind over 500 structures in Brazil, including the civic buildings of the new capital Brasilia (established 1960). With white concrete and flowing curves, his architecture looks like something out of a sci-fi movie.
The stark, curving walls are the perfect setting for avantgarde art. Above is Ayrson Heraclitus’s exploration of the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé religion. Visitors hear the clank of metalwork (representing Ogun, the warrior god) over footage of worshippers cooking feijoada (a local stew presented as an offering).
My travel partner and co-photographer was Elizabeth Wurtzel (author of Prozac Nation, Bitch, and other bestselling books). We adored the “Anna Bella & Lygia & Mira & Wanda” exhibition, which put the spotlight on four leading Brazilian contemporary artists.
Above is a movable metal sculpture by Lygia Clark. In the next room, Mira Schendel’s Zen minimalist works express “transcendence from the zero spectrum” (that’s how the didactic label put it!)
Doesn’t this look like a scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey?
I was impressed by Wanda Pimentel’s fine linework; she paints women’s feet and domestic objects, in a “critique of society’s suppression of privacy.” We also loved the political art of Anna Bella Geiger, which rallied against “burocracia” and censorship during Brazil’s dictatorship.
Be sure to take in the spectacular view of Rio, from the red ramps that wrap around the flying object. You can spot Sugarloaf Mountain, Christ the Redeemer and other landmarks across Guanabara Bay.
Then, walk down the spiral staircase to the bistro, where you can drink caipirinhas and browse handmade jewelry inspired by Niemeyer.
Oscar Niemeyer is one of my architecture heroes, and I was over the moon to finally visit one of his masterpieces.
If you’re into experimental art (and aliens!), the Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Niterói is one of the coolest museums on planet Earth.
On another day, Elizabeth and I visited Rio’s Museum of Tomorrow, which also looks like an intergalactic shuttle! Designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, the Museu do Amanhã opened in 2015 right before the Olympics.
The museum and urban plaza rejuvenated the Porto Maravilha waterfront, which was once a run-down district of Rio.
Calatrava’s innovative design looks like a spacecraft hovering over water. The silhouette was inspired by the bromelia flower, which he saw in Rio’s Botanical Gardens.
The visionary Museum of Tomorrow is unlike any other. The experience focuses on five questions: Where did we come from? Who are we? Where are we? Where are we going? And how do we want to live together over the next fifty years?
Visitors receive a touch card in their language of choice, for interacting with the displays. At the end, you can measure your consumption footprint; mine was not great, as I fly more than 100 hours a year…
(Leather wrap bracelet by Bulgari Serpenti.)
The high-tech exhibits make you think about global matters like population growth, ecological and climate changes, and distributions of wealth.
First, we entered a “cosmic portal” and watched a 360-degree film by City of God director Fernando Meirelle, which traced our development from the Big Bang to today. Then, we explored four giant cubes with mixed-media displays, highlighting different aspects of the “5 questions.”
This cube had 1200 fascinating images arranged in pillars. They show global examples of prayers, sensations, relationships, power, body modifications and other human expressions.
The Museum of Tomorrow lets you reflect about our impact on the planet. These Stonehenge-like screens present real-time numbers about global gas emissions, ozone depletion, ocean population losses…
On the right, Daniel Wurtzel’s dancing fabrics convey the constant flux of matter. (No relation to Elizabeth, but the last name was a neat coincidence.)
By the end, you’re encouraged to think about the possibilities for transformation. We entered a wooden structure based on an indigenous longhouse, with an Australian “tjurunga” (symbolizing the passing on of knowledge) in the center. Music and lights mimic the cycles of sunset and sunrise.
At last, you emerge from the cocoon. As Elizabeth put it, “I am a purple butterfly looking into the future and everything is beautiful.”
The large picture-windows reconnect you to the present. Santiago Calatrava designed a reflection pool around the building with filtered water that is pumped in from the bay, and then released back.
A Frank Stella sculpture appears to float on the water. Hearts for the neofuturistic Museum of Tomorrow and its message of sustainability.
Our guide Rodrigo took us to the nearby mural by Eduardo Kobra. It’s the largest in the world, at 190 meters long.
The Brazilian street artist created this rainbow work for the Rio Olympic games.
The “Ethnicities” mural depicts five indigenous faces from five continents (Brazil, Ethiopia, Thailand, Northern Europe, and Papua New Guinea). They represent human ancestors and the colors of the rings on the Olympic flag.
Within a few years, “Olympic Boulevard” has become a tech center with green spaces, public events, live music and nightly fireworks.
However, Rio’s beaches remain the heart of the city. Copacabana was favored by celebrities in the mid-20th century, but today, Ipanema beach is the place to be.
I loved walking by the ocean, especially on weekdays when Ipanema Beach is uncrowded. Groups gather in different “postos” or divisions; there are areas favored by hippies, LGBT, families, etc. You’ll come across groups of friends playing “football” (Brazil’s beloved national sport) and other games near the crashing waves.
I encourage you to book a hotel by the beach. My stay at Sofitel hotel let me live out my “girl from Ipanema” dreams: I only had to cross the street to have my feet in the sand.
(Book a stay at Sofitel Ipanema Rio here.)
The Sofitel made me feel at home with artistic interiors and surprise fruit plates, and staff that knew me by name. My 5-star room was decorated in mid-century modern tropicalia, with a picture-window that opened up to this view of Ipanema.
Every morning, I looked forward to Sofitel’s breakfast. You could choose from the buffet (the selection included a refreshing green detox juice, and coconut yogurt smoothies), or order from the menu (I always got the acai with banana, and tapioca crepe with cheese and vegetables).
We had lunch at the hotel’s 23 Ocean Lounge, located on a sunny terrace next to the swimming pool. We tried fresh cocktails made with Brazilian fruits, and ate local grilled fish followed by coconut mousse, while enjoying views of Ipanema and Copacabana beaches.
With a mod couch like this, waiting in the lobby was a pleasure! (Elizabeth is with Rodrigo, our outstanding local guide who also works as a TV fixer and speaks multiple languages.)
Sofitel Ipanema Rio de Janeiro is in the best possible location. You can walk over to the beachfront, or visit the fashion boutiques, cafes, jewelry stores and art galleries two blocks behind the hotel.
Most of the stores are on Rua Visconde de Pirajá. Brazilian fashion tends to be airy and relaxed. I was a fan of the footwear designers Melissa Shoes and Schutz Shoes; see below for some of their styles.
It was refreshing to be in a destination that doesn’t feel “touristy.” Very few people speak English in Brazil, even in major stores. I enjoyed the challenge of trying to communicate with hand gestures and bits of Portuguese!
Rio de Janeiro is the place to shop for swimwear and resort fashion. (Find a similar red and white striped bikini here.)
Every Sunday, the road by Ipanema is closed to cars, which lets locals ride bikes, roller skate and walk along the shore. I strolled along the beach every day, and enjoyed the views (I’m talking about both the scenery and the fellows in it!)
Rodrigo recommended that we check out Botafogo, an up-and-coming neighborhood with outstanding restaurants, live music bars and nightlife.
We had dinner in this neighborhood, at Iraja Gastro — and it turned out to be one of the best meals I had in South America. Chef Camila Anacleto welcomed us to the cozy restaurant, known for its contemporary tasting menu with Brazilian influences.
We began with two addictive plates: mandioca (cassava) chips with grana padano and clarified butter, and churros of cheeses and herbs.
At Irajá Gastro, each dish is made with sustainable ingredients. Above is their latest version of caprese (it has gone through six variations so far): a brilliant combo of buffala mozzarella, basil oil, strawberry and tomato sorbet.
The open kitchen adds to the relaxed atmosphere of the restaurant. It’s a perfect place to have a special meal with friends, or celebrate an occasion.
We adored the fish of the day with toasted coconut and avocado. On the right: an innovative ravioli with fondant palm, chestnut and canastra cheese. Below it is my juicy Angus entrecote cut of the day, with mustard and vegetables. It paired perfectly with a bottle of red Guaspari (Iraja Gastro carries an extensive Brazilian-only wine list).
The meal had a sweet ending with a berry marshmallow dessert, and “bolo de brigadeiro” — hot chocolate cake with vanilla cream poured on top.
A trip to Rio isn’t complete without seeing the spectacular view from the top of Sugarloaf Mountain (Pão de Açúcar). We rode cable cars up the two elongated mountains, which resemble traditional loaves of sugar.
Elizabeth and I took this photo from the top of the first mound, Urca Hill (Morro da Urca).
Visitors can walk around and take in the sights from 360 degrees.
When you’re ready to ascend the next peak, hop into the second glass-walled cable car. In three minutes, you’ll be at the top of Sugarloaf.
Do you see the crucifix-shaped silhouette on the mountain in the distance? That’s the famous statue Christ the Redeemer, on the peak of Corcovado. The 38-meter Jesus has his arms outstretched, and appears to be blessing the people from high above.
“Cristo Redentor” was completed in 1931 by French sculptor Paul Landowski and Brazilian engineer Heitor da Silva Costa. It’s the most recognizable landmark of Rio, and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
Both locals and visitors gather at the top of Sugar Loaf to take in this glowing sunset over Guanarana Bay. It’s one of the best spots in the city for golden hour.
Rodrigo then took us to the nearby Urca district, and ordered us caipirinhas (Brazil’s national cocktail, made with sugar, lime and cachaça — a sugarcane liquor). The seawall is a lively hangout spot for young locals, who play music and drink while watching the moon rise over the waterfront.
I also loved sipping tea and watching the pink skies from my window at Sofitel Ipanema hotel.
Elizabeth and I went outside to Ipanena beach for the last rays. Our trip to Rio was outstanding, and we’ll remember it for life.
It’s a great time to visit Brazil, as the complicated and expensive visa process has changed. In the past, you had to complete a detailed application that included bank statements and an employer’s letter, and leave your passport at the consulate for up to a month. Now, if you’re a citizen of Canada, United States, Japan, or Australia, the process is simpler. You can apply online for a Brazil tourist e-visa and receive it within a few days.
Did you know Rio de Janeiro had such trippy, extraterrestrial attractions?
Time to fly off in my UFO… but more stories to come soon, including my dream journey to Easter Island!
A cheesy trip to Gruyeres, Switzerland! Traveling by Swiss trains to see Medieval castles & culture.
Ready for part 2 of my Gruyères, Switzerland journey? I’ll warn you, it gets a little cheesy…
However, there are many more reasons to check out Gruyeres. Located in Switzerland’s canton of Fribourg, it’s one of the most scenic destinations that photographer Joey Wong and I have ever seen.
(And it’s the birthplace of Gruyeres cheese, which happens to be my favorite!)
We were surprised at how much we enjoyed this little Swiss village, with pastoral landscapes and a Medieval castle.
First, how do you get to Gruyere? Most travellers start in Geneva, the capital of Switzerland. From there, it’s about a two-hour journey by train.
Joey and I used First Class Swiss Travel Pass from Switzerland Tourism, for unlimited rides on any of the country’s trains. The system works like clockwork, with efficient timetables and connections. (No wonder the Swiss are known as master watch-makers.)
We stayed in a hotel in Geneva, and did a day-trip to Gruyeres (you can also stay in the village overnight, if you wish to spend more time here).
There are two railway routes you can take from Geneva central station: go to Romont and change at Bulle, or take the scenic ride to Montreux, and change at Montbovon.
I’d opt for the Montreux itinerary. As you can see, the view out the window is spectacular! For most of the journey, you can see the crystal waters of Lac Léman (aka Lake Geneva), one of the largest in Western Europe.
Our jaws dropped at the scenes that passed by our train window: quaint churches with steeples, furry sheep grazing, green hilly landscapes.
When you arrive at Gruyeres Station, you must walk up a path to reach the village itself. Take your time to enjoy the sights along the way, including this cute chapel with a bell tower.
We said hello to these hungry sheep, with bells ringing from their collars.
“The hills are alive, with the Sound of Music!” This view of the Alps made me want to dance around like Maria Von Trapp.
And then, we arrived at the village of Gruyeres: home to only about 2000 people. However, behind the charm lurks aliens… (as you can see in my article about the H. R. Giger museum and bar.)
Gruyeres is in the French region of Switzerland, so most of the signs are in this language. Cheese is the main industry here, along with culture tourism — people come here from around the world, to soak up the old-time charm of this little town.
The town is named after the founder, Gruerius. He captured a crane and made it his symbolic animal (in French, the bird is called a “grue”).
No matter where you point the camera, La Gruyere is a stunner. We strolled by St. Theodul’s church (Église Saint-Théodule), which dates back to 1254. The Counts of Gruyeres are buried under the altar of St. Michael, in this Catholic church
However, this Goth was more interested in the Satanic underbelly of this town! (My alien emoji sweater hints at the occult world of HR Giger. See more styles below:)
La Gruyere is especially vibrant in the fall, when the leaves are fiery red.
For those who love culture, there are several artistic attractions in the village, including a Tibetan art museum.
Fans of the Alien movie series make pilgrimages here, to behold the H. R. Giger museum. Gruyeres is home to the largest collection of his works.
We started at one of the main sights, the Castle of Gruyères. This fortress from the Middle Ages now holds a museum, art exhibitions, and theatrical showings.
Gruyères Castle was built in the late 13th century, with a distinctive Savoy square layout. With a labyrinth and garden beneath the Alps… this is a picture straight out of a fairy tale.
Many travel to this region to hike in the nearby mountains. Moléson-sur-Gruyères and Dent de Broc are ranges in the Frebourg pre-Alps, overlooking the lake of Gruyère.
History and culture-lovers flock to Switzerland to see the famous Medieval castles. (We also visited Chillon castle at Montreux, which you can see here.)
This sculpture, located at the entrance of Chateau de Gruyères, caught my eye. It’s called “Le Bouclier de Mars”, and appears to be an ancient carving. However, in fact, it was created by Patrick Woodruffe in 1993.
Leave it to me to find the devil, wherever I go! (There was also a “heaven” circular panel next to this one.)
Woodruffe’s work is based on his 1979 illustration, The Vicious Circle (1979). It depicts war as a closed circle of destruction and futility.
If you look at the imagery up close, you’ll notice alien sci-fi motifs — not unlike Giger’s visions.
The castle was hosting an exhibition of Patrick Woodruffe’s fantasy art. His works are surreal and unsettling; this one is a riff on Jabberwocky from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
Gruyeres was once completely surrounded by protective stone walls. Parts of this Medieval battlement still stand.
No matter where you walk, you’ll come across spectacular views of the surrounding countryside.
It’s about to “get cheesy”… Around lunch-time, the entire village smells of delicious fromage! Diners come from afar to feast on Gruyere’s iconic product, especially in the form of fondue.
This Swiss cheese is as fresh as it gets. You can even spot the cows that provide the milk, in the nearby fields.
After a long afternoon, we sat down for an immensely satisfying meal at Chalet Restaurant. (Above is an image from their website, since the space was packed with people and it was difficult to get clear shots.)
Joey and I devoured the fondue (melted cheese in a communal pot, eaten by dipping bread, pickles and other crudites into the hot liquid). We also tried raclette for the first time (semi-hard cheese heated on a special device at the table, and scraped off), and the local herbal liqueur “Grande Gruyère”. We ended with a decadent dessert: double cream and raspberries.
My Swiss cheese feast at Chalet was one of the most memorable meals I’ve had in Europe. We literally were in a food coma after, and dozed off on the train ride back! Fortunately, we woke up in time to make our connections back to Geneve, and capture this psychedelic sunset.
PS: For a look at the sci-fi side of Gruyeres, check out my article about the H R Giger alien museum and bar here.
PPS: If you’re coveting an extraterrestrial sweater like mine, click the image below!