Touring South America
by Ronald Davies © 1996
My trip to South America started in Los Angeles on October 12, 1996. I traveled on VARIG Airline to and from Montevideo, Uruguay. My trip included a stopover in San Paulo, Brazil. While on the stopover, I took a side trip to Rio de Janeiro, utilizing the VARIG Ponte Aerea (Air Bridge). While in Uruguay I also visited Punta de Este. Other side trip destinations included Buenos Aries, Iguaçu Falls and Bariloche, all in Argentina. On these side trips I used Aerolineas Argentinas airline.
I am handicapped (HC), a post polio, and travel with an electric mobility scooter which is essential to the success of my travels. I am ambulatory, with the use of a cane, for short distances but I tire quickly, so the scooter really helps me. Both VARIG and Aerolineas Argentinas were very accommodating in transporting the scooter and in assisting me throughout the various airports. See Note 1.
The flight to San Paulo was on a Boeing 747 and took approximately 12 hours. I traveled on a frequent flyer award in Executive Class (business class) which, considering my physical limitations, was very desirable. On arrival in San Paulo, at my request, they brought my scooter to the deplaning gate. This was a benefit because it was a considerable distance from the gate to the immigration, baggage and customs area. Even though I was last off the plane I zipped along and was among the first to exit from customs.
I was met by relatives at the San Paulo airport, so I was not required to make local transportation arrangements. This was not the case at other destinations and I will review my experiences as we proceed through the trip.
My time in San Paulo was mainly spent visiting with my relatives. They are an American family that were in Brazil on a three year tour for Ford Motor Company. My visit coincided with the end of their tour, and I was included in going away parties hosted by both business and personal friends. These included Americans, Europeans and Brazilians so I received a good understanding about life in Brazil. During the stay I visited Santos, a nearby coastal beach resort, and also Compo do Jordas, an alpine mountain resort a few hours from San Paulo.
One of the enjoyable experiences was a meal at one of the popular "churrascurias" restaurants. The one I visited, named Buffalo, these restaurants offer a wide range of meats grilled or roasted over charcoal. Each type is brought to your table, in turn, and you instruct the waiter on what cut you wish. The Buffalo is a "rodizo" type which offers all you can eat.
I traveled to Rio on the Ponte Aerea, an air shuttle that connects Congonhas field, a central San Paulo airport to Rios Santos Dumont airport. Flights leave every half hour and cost about $100. Reservations are not required and the flight is about an hour.
I had been warned about personal security in both San Paulo and Rio. I was advised not to take one of the yellow and black airport taxis but rather a fixed price car offered by several transportation booths in the airport. They have a posted price for most popular destinations including the major hotels. You pay at the airport and receive a receipt, which you give to the driver when you reach your hotel. I stayed at the Intercontinental, on San Conrado Beach and the fare was $40. (The currency is the cruzerio and is interchangeable (=) to the dollar). American currency is accepted everywhere as are most credit cards so there is no need to exchange large amounts of money. When I returned to the airport I used a car and driver offered by the hotel for a fixed fare of $35.
The Intercontinental was quite comfortable and I was pleased to be upgraded to an ocean front junior suite as a result of my membership in their Seven Continents Club. Although I did not view them, I was told by the front desk that they have HC rooms available and welcome HC persons. The beach there was quite nice and there was a large shopping mall nearby but otherwise the location was somewhat remote. If I were to return, I would stay in the Copacabana or Ipanema beach areas. The Meridien on Copacabana would be a good choice. It offers a secure area on the beach intended for hotel guests but since the beach is public any one, with chutzpah, can take advantage of the security by proximity.
Since I was warned repeatedly about personal security problems, I was somewhat constrained in my activities and a little uncomfortable on the streets. I did not, however, experience any thing other than the normal street hucksters. I did not go out on the streets after dark but during the day I did considerable exploring. The streets and sidewalks along the main beaches had curb cuts and were wheelchair accessible but most other areas did not have cuts. Many restaurants had entrance steps.
My main interests in Rio were to see the beaches, experience the statue of Christ at the top of Corcovado mountain and to take the cable car to the top of Sugar Loaf. I did these by taking a Gray Line day-long tour booked in advance through my travel agent. I had the option of a car and driver/guide but the expense was quite high for only one person compared to the tour. In retrospect I feel that I should have taken the car and would recommend it to others especially if there are several persons to share the cost. The problem with the tour was the wasted time picking up and returning people to their hotels. The tour also stopped for a 45 minute shopping opportunity which I had no interest in. I was picked up at 8 AM and returned around 7 PM, a very long day.
There are two ways to reach the statue, by car or by a cogwheel train. The tour included the train. I believe the car would offer better in route views of the city and the beaches and would be quicker and more comfortable. Once you reach the top there are a number of steps to reach the base of the statue ( I would guess at 100 or more) . There is, however, a good view of the statue and of the city below from the parking lot area which is where there train station is located. I did not, of course, climb the steps.
The cable car to Sugar Loaf is as much of an experience as is the view when once you reach the top. First of all there seems to be an impression by the attendants that there is no limit on how many passengers the cable cars will hold. They load the cars until the cable sags to the point where entry requires passengers to step down a foot or more to the floor of the car. The views from the car, from both the intermediate stop and from Sugar Loaf are tremendous, really beautiful. I was told that a good time to make the trip was arrive at the top during the late afternoon and to see the city light up as it darkens. NOTE there are quite a few steps to reach the cable car at the base station. ( I am told that there is an elevator but I did not see it. There are also some at the intermediate level but these maybe circumvented by a path that leads, to your right as you leave the first stage car, to the next level car. If you go in a wheelchair I believe that you must have some help. I did not take the scooter.
Other tour stops of interest were the city cathedral which offers interesting modern architrave and the samba stadium which is not a stadium but rather a two or three block long parade route with stadium type seats along one side. The ride on the tour bus also provided an opportunity to see many aspects of the city. Other tours offered visits to museums, parks, etc.
On my next to last day in Brazil, my scooter failed. An electric circuit on the motor controller over heated and burned out. Friends of my relatives that were electrical engineers at the San Paulo Ford Motor plant an I attempted to repair it but were unable. I left it there and picked it up on a stop over in San Paulo on return trip back home. VARIG offers HC passengers a special check office at the airport. There they assisted me in finding a place to store my scooter ($5 per day) until my return. They also provided a wheelchair attendant to take me to my gate. I had considered ending the trip there but decided that I would go on and attempt to rent scooters at my subsequent stops.
My next stop was Montevedio, Uruguay where I rented a car but was unable to locate any source for a scooter. I drove from the Montevideo airport directly to Punta Del Este a beautiful oceanside resort town located about 65 miles away. There I stayed at the Las Dunas Hotel, which I had arranged through a time share exchange. The hotel was directly on the ocean and very deluxe with many amenities. It was about eight miles from the center of the town so having a car was very convenient. Access to the beach and the outdoor pool was difficult due to steps but on request the hotel provided a ride on an electric cart they normally used to move luggage. There were curb cuts on the main city street but none on side streets.
It was spring, late October, before the high season there so there were no crowds of people and some of the restaurants were not open. In the summer time I understand that it is very crowded and difficult to find accommodations.
From Punta Del Este I took a day auto trip to the city of Montevideo. The city is divided into the old and new sections. The old is reminiscent of on older European city with narrow streets, small shops and large squares or plazas. The main plazas are all along Rincon Street and a five or six block length of the Av 18 De Julio. A tour of Plazas Zabala, Matriz, Independence and Liberertad covers many of the points of interest. Few curb cuts but many driveways and low curb opportunities.
The drive along the oceanfront, on streets called the "Rambla" offer views of the ocean, beaches, and other city areas including the newer section.
Driving in Uruguay was a new experience. Stop lights and signs are used mainly to decide who has the right of way. If drivers approach a red light or a stop sign, and no one seems to be approaching from the other way they do not stop. When I stopped for a red light under these conditions the cars behind me would blow their horns. The same concept is applied to no pass situations, curves or not. Fortunately traffic was very light while I was there.
Food was very good and very reasonable. Beef and other meats were especially good. I was tempted to have steak at every meal it was so good. In Punta Del Este the restaurants I would recommend include the dinning room at the Las Dunas, the Portofino and the Yacht Club of Uruguay. All are accessible, although the Portofino restroom is upstairs.
I departed from Montevideo airport on Aerolines Argentenas in route to Buenos Aires, Argentina. On both my arrival to and departure from Mondevideo the airlines provided a lift to assist me on and off the planes and to and from the terminal. They did not have so called "jetways."
The flight to Buenos Aries was short, only 35 or 40 minutes. These short flights land at the domestic airport which also does not have jetways but the same type lift was provided. I assume that Ezeiza Airport, the international airport, has jetways. The domestic airport is much closer to downtown, only an $11 fixed price car price vs. a $40 charge from the international airport. If your plans include transfers between domestic and international flights be advised that these two airports are about 38 miles apart.
Since I was staying in Buenos Aries for seven nights, I had decided to stay at the Best Western Embassy, a suite hotel on Av Cordoba, a convenient center city location. I was very disappointed in the hotel and spent the rest of my arrival day on the phone canvassing other hotels for a room that was affordable. I stayed that night and moved to the Caesar Palace Hotel the next morning.
Not only was the Embassy uncomfortable, but the elevator operation was enough to scare a cliff climber. If you were lucky enough for it to stop at your floor, the elevator floor could be a foot too low or too high from the building floor. The elevator cab was an open type with mesh walls. It jerked so on start and stop that I had to brace myself to prevent being thrown on the floor. The bed was a thin foam pad placed on wood slats. The shower was a small corner of the bathroom with a pull around curtain on two sides. The shower area was so small that as soon as the curtain became wet it stuck to your skin and as you moved and turned the water went all over the bathroom floor. The construction of the rooms was so flimsy that when the door to the adjoining room was closed it set off my motion sensing alarm. I was not the only tourist to experience the Embassy as I will relate later.
While the Caesar Place was more expensive, (I was able to stay three nights at 50% off by utilizing United Airlines award certificates), there was a huge difference in the amenities offered by the two hotels. After the three nights there I changed to the Panamericano, as an economy measure, which was also quite nice.
The concierge staff at the Caesar Park were very helpful and succeeded in finding a company that was willing to rent me a scooter for the two weeks that I was in Argentina.. Having the scooter made my stay far more enjoyable and allowed me to explore just about every place I wished. The scooter company was also quite helpful. They delivered to the hotel, assisted me to the airport when I left for other Argentina destinations and picked the scooter up when I returned. The company is IGUALAR S.A. Av del Libertador 6065 - 1428 -Bs. As. Argentina. Tel: 54-1-784-4142, Fax: 54-1-786-7575. I used a Pride Legend in BA and a Pride Sidekick on my subsequent trips. The Sidekick is a smaller unit and more suitable for travel.
The same limitations on HC curb cuts that I experienced elsewhere in were true in Buenos Aries but there were always ways to cope and I went everywhere in the downtown area. The Caesar Park was located a short distance from the La Recoleta district, an upscale area with numerous restaurants, cafes, galleries and shops. One of its interesting attractions is a cemetery with many elaborate mausoleums. Eva Peron is buried there. The sidewalk café area is always crowded with people even late at night. While I was there it was lively even at 1AM on weekend nights. While I was there the city government has just announced a eminent ban on the sale of alcoholic drinks after 11p.m. and this, if still in affect, may have moderated the late night crowds.
The Caesar Park is also located across the street from the Patio Bullrich shopping center, a older restored building housing a number of expensive stores. There is a ramp entrance to the center at the Posadas Street entrance. Inside the center there are small elevators between the two levels.
The Panamericano is located on the Carlos Pelligrini section of Avenida 9 De Julio, the grand main boulevard. It is only a block from Lavalle Street, a walking street that intersects with Flordia Street also a walking street. Booth streets are limited to pedestrian use and lined with shops, stores, cafes, movies and amusement arcades. The more upscale places are located on Florida in the section between Avenida Cordoba and Plaza San Martin. These streets were great for a scooter or WC even if all you want to do is people watch. Another easily reached area, by scooter is the Plaza De Mayo.
While in Buenos Aires, I took a city tour and went to a evening Tango dinner show. Both were arranged by the hotel concierge. The city bus tour served to acquaint me with the various areas and helped me determine where I would explore on my scooter. The tango show was enjoyable and the dinner was very good. I had most of my meals at some of the many small cafes. One special dinner was at the "Restaurant 9 de Julio," located on Carlos Pellegrini (av. 9 de Julio). It is a "parrillas" type, one that features open fire roasting and grilling of meats.
My next stop was Iguaçu Falls, 275 falls that form a giant horseshoe of falls. My flight was uneventful although I did have a problem with transporting the scooter from the airport to the hotel. After attempts in several taxis one of the drivers managed to fit it into his car. The experience was complicated by language difficulties and the fact that it was raining and the taxi area was very muddy.
I had decided on staying on the Argentine side of the falls, not the Brazilian, because I had been advised that it would more suitable for the use of my scooter in viewing the scope of the falls. While I was there I spoke with travelers, that had been on both sides, that gave me conflicting information. I had expected to go on a helicopter viewing and found that they were only operated from the Brazilian side.
I was able to view the overall falls and to venture out on catwalks over the falls. There was no way for me to descend to the lower levels and experience the walks under and around the base of the falls. I was told that there was an elevator to the lower level on the Brazilian side. Be advised that the walk around the falls is a circular one that is restricted to one way foot traffic. If you follow the directed one-way foot traffic instructions, there are some steps. I learned this and went against traffic and got to see all of the main views. The walkers were all good-natured about making way for me and several offered encouragement.
The highlight of the falls experience was venturing out on the catwalks. The sound and fury of the cascading water was exhilarating to the point where I could feel my heart beating faster.
I stayed at the Hotel Internacional Iguazu and was very comfortable. It is rated as deluxe but actually is a bit less. They had two very good restaurants and the public areas and pool/health/club were quite nice. There are several other lodging options but I understood that the Internacional was the hotel of choice. While at the Internacional I met an American couple that, by chance, had checked into the BA Best Western later in the same day that I had checked out. They were assigned the same room and had the same experience as I. They also checked out and moved to the nearby Hotel Libertador where they were very satisfied.
My next destination was Bariloche, an Alpine-type town that is the ski capital of the Southern Hemisphere. It is located on the northern edge of Patagonia amid several lakes and snow capped mountain peaks. The trip required flying back to BA and taking another flight to Bariloche. For the flights from BA to Iguazu and back and to Bariloche and back to BA I used a Visit Argentina pass, a booklet of four passes sold for about $400. They are only sold outside the country and only with the presentation of an international ticket. There are restrictions so check carefully before buying one.
I arrived at the Bariloche airport only to find that my scooter did not operate. There also were no taxis that were able to accommodate it. I ended up riding into town with the inoperable scooter mounted on the roof of a taxi help secure, barely, with bungee cords connected to a ski rack. It was a real relief when we arrived at my hotel with the scooter intact.
Once in my room, I examined the scooter and quickly found the problem was that the airline personnel had disconnected the battery cables at some point and had not reconnected them. Since it was a rented scooter, I was not familiar with the access to the battery area. Access was by removal of the seat and a cover. I had trouble with the seat because it was secured to the scooter by a pin that was difficult to remove, in that it had been inserted with the grip ring backwards. If I had been more familiar I might have been able to correct the problem at the airport. It was also the first time that they had disconnected the cables and I did not expect it. It was interesting to note that they had not secured the cables, leaving they free to move as the scooter was handled and posing more of a threat than when they were connected. The handling of the scooter had also resulted in the physical displacement of the batteries. I now use a new Pride scooter and plan to find a way to physically restrain the batteries.
I stayed at the Hotel Panamericano and can recommend it. My new friends, the couple that had the same Best Western experience, were on the same itinerary as I and stayed at the Hotel Edelweiss which they recommended highly. I did not check out accessibility at the Edelwiss but the Panamericano main building, where I stayed, was accessible
Bariloche is a tourist town and has many shops and restaurants. Local products include fresh chocolates made in many small factories and hand-knit Patagonia wool products. The central area is generally accessible by scooter and wheelchair but not consistently so. I was able to go anywhere I wished but sometime it required retracing my trail and the use of an alternate route. Most of the shops and restaurants were also accessible.
The main attraction for me was the magnificent scenery. The town is located on the shore of Lake Nahuel Huapi, a beautiful crystalline body of water with snow capped mountain peaks in the background. My friends and I rented a car and driver/guide for a day and we experienced one beautiful view after another. I also took a boat tour that crossed the lake to a rustic lodge called Puerto Blest. From there we took a bus to nearby Lake Frias which is remarkable due to its luminous green almost neon-like color. The tour includes a boat crossing of Lake Frias where some passengers disembark to continue on to Chile only a short distance beyond. Boarding the boats, on foot, was somewhat difficult because the docks were rough and had some steps. I believe wheelchairs could be accommodated, by manhandling, with advance notice.
My trip back to BA was uneventful and my scooter firm was there to pick up the Sidekick. I then boarded a flight to Montevideo to start my trip home on VARIG. (In Bariloche the hotel agreed to transport my scooter to the airport in their supply truck )
I had planed an overnight in Montevideo to break up the trip back. I chose a hotel in town because I was unable to locate one near the airport. I chose the Hotel Lafayette based on the recommendation of an acquaintance. I was surprised at the 12 mile, $42 taxi fare. The hotel was comfortable and through them I was able to arrange a $30 fare back to the airport the next day. On the way back to the airport I did notice the Casino Hotel Carrasco which was much closer to the airport, 3 or so miles, and it would have been a better choice as far as taxi fare is concerned.
My return included a layover of about 5 hours in San Paulo where I retrieved my scooter and transferred to a nonstop flight to Los Angeles. My trip was a real adventure that I will always remember.
Note 1. While all airline personnel were anxious to help me, there are several recommendations I would offer:
1. State explicitly what you desire:
At check-in, tell the agent where and when you wish to check your wheelchair or scooter. If you want to do it at the boarding gate and they will not allow that, arrive at an understanding about how they will get you there and how you will spend the time until boarding ( Often they will allow you to wait in their VIP Lounge). Determine where you will receive it at your destination. I am independent and always ask that it be available at the arrival gate. If they can not accommodate this request, ask that the destination staff be notified that you will need assistance.
Upon boarding, relate your understanding of the arrangements to a flight attendant. Before arrival at your destination, ask the attendant for a further confirmation of the arrangements.
2. Provide, and attach to your scooter/WC, a written summary of the operational details regarding your scooter/WC. Include information on any necessary disassembling and reassembling. While they may not read it, you will have the argument that it was available to them in the event of damage. Tag the battery with a note that if the battery is to disconnected that you expect it to be reconnected before it is returned to you. (be prepared to do this yourself as the request is often not heeded).
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