Our whirlwind trip continued as we exited the flight from Natal shortly after sunrise, a taxi trip in morning traffic offering us a glimpse into the vast expanse of Rio de Janeiro as we made our way to our hotel nestled between the confluence of the famous Copacabana and Ipanema beaches.
There was no time for rest as we dropped our bags at the front desk and walked the block to the oceanfront boardwalk, then strolled down to enjoy brunch as beach soccer and beach volleyball games entertained us.
Further up we came to the FIFA Fan Fest in Copacabana where thousands gathered to watch a cracking match between the Netherlands and Australia, then hurried back to our hotel to check in and catch the subway to see the last of our ticketed contests, Spain versus Chile in the world renowned Maracana.
While our concierge’s idea of transit time left something to be desired, we managed to avoid the chaos of Chilean supporters crashing through the media entrance and circumnavigated the stadium to find our seats prior to kickoff.
We found some gentleman holding our seats for us, and after some even gentler prodding they made way as we settled in just in time to see Chile make things worse for the defending World Cup champions with a superb team goal finished off by Eduardo Vargas.
The 75,000 plus capacity arena was awash in a sea of red, both countries fans bearing the same primary color red but to the neutral the majority of support was clearly in the South American side’s favor.
That fanatical fervor doubled just before the break when Chile capitalized on a poor free kick clearance by Iker Casillas, Charles Aranguiz pouncing on the loose ball with a delightful one touch toe punch finish to put Spain into deeper misery to compound their capitulation to Holland days earlier.
The dismissal of Spain was a surprise, but the class on the field came from a Chilean team that would later unfairly fall to hosts Brazil in the Round of Sixteen following a penalty shootout.
Before that came to pass, however, we enjoyed an ebullient evening with celebrating Chilenos eager to share their elation. Standing in the grand environs of the stadium long after the final whistle, we eventually made our way back home on a packed subway, meeting new friends along the way.
A couple of twenty-something Chilean guys made these two intrepid travelers envious, their tales of road tripping across South America to attend the Copa Mundial harkening back to our younger days of driving from Portland to Panama.
We finished our night watching Croatia crush Cameroon 4-nil from a bar near our hotel, and after a day that began before dawn we retired to our room.The next day was a rarity as rain and an overcast sky put a damper on any plans to lounge in the sun, so instead we sought out some sightseeing that led us to the media center at Forte do Copacabana, which turned out was only three blocks from our temporary home.
The media centers were always a welcome respite from the craziness and unpredictability of Brazilian life, not to mention the best wireless internet access. After a bit of hobnobbing with other journalists we pushed on and resumed our primary aim of watching football.
Impressed by the chipping skills of James Rodriguez in Colombia’s defeat of the Ivory Coast, the match of the day for us was Uruguay and England. On the advice of a friend living in Rio we made our way to the Mud Bug pub, a well known locale for viewing matches and apparently also for beautiful Brazilian and Colombian bartenders.
Missing out on seeing Luis Suarez as he sat out in the loss to Costa Rica we attended in Fortaleza, the now former Liverpool striker was electric as he punished the country of his one time employment with two scintillating goals either side of a fantastic finish from his old strike partner Daniel Sturridge.
The Three Lions bowed out as early as Spain, and remarkably Uruguay would go on to take down Italy as well, but not before Suarez ensconced his place in infamy with the bite seen round the world on the understandably apopleptic Giorgio Chiellini.
While the indelible image of fans posing with Suarez’s open-mouthed advertisement in Copacabana prompted adidas to take it down, we prefer to think of a simpler time when the Uruguayan was better known for his scoring panache than his odd predilection for human flesh.
We discussed the finer points of the sport with aficionados from numerous nations while we watched the night’s slate of matches, making new friends from Uruguay, Mexico, and Brazil in particular. Being our last night before flying home, we did our best to savor the moment and let the amazing experiences in this beautiful country sink in before crashing hard.
Waking up early the next morning we set out directly to Corcovado to see the Christ the Redeemer statue, the symbol of Rio and Brazil more than simply a Catholic icon as the mountaintop setting over two thousand feet above sea level is a view unlike any other in the world.
The proximity of the mountain is mere miles from the ocean, so to go from the beach to the clouds is a dizzying trip that induces vertigo when you look down the sheer cliff from the edge of the viewing platform.
Even for those with a fear of heights the trek is well worth the psychological discomfort, the reward unobstructed 360 degree vistas that include the Maracana, Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, and Sugarloaf Mountain.After snapping the gratuitous Jesus Christ pose pictures, we headed for the next major landmark in Sugarloaf to take the cable car to the top of the seaside peak.
For these two boys from Oregon that grew up with the Goonies and the dominant image of Cannon Beach’s 235 foot Haystack Rock, while Sugarloaf was smaller than Corcovado at roughly 1,300 feet the height and views impressed in equal measure.
There are two cable cars that take you up to the top, the midway point of Morro da Urca putting you squarely inside a national park complete with helicopter trips and native monkeys like marmosets roaming free.
The views from the cable cars on both legs are majestic, and once you reach the summit of Pao de Acucar you can hike around the circumference on paved trails that provide unparalleled scenes of the tropical paradise that is Rio de Janeiro.
The scope and scale of both these viewpoints is hard to fathom, but seeing helicopters flying beneath you offers some perspective.
To offer more evidence of Rio’s credentials as one of the most visually captivating cities in the world, at least once in your life watch the arcing flight path of jets passing under El Cristo Redentor and then below and past Sugarloaf into Rio’s domestic airport on Guanabara Bay, truly a sight to behold.
It was on that high of highs that we made our way halfway back down to lunch while watching the Ticos upset Italy and book Costa Rica’s passage out of the group stage. Always aiming to time our travel in between matches, we returned to our hotel to see France seal their own advancement with a 5-2 thrashing of the Swiss.
Even when I stepped out for some last minute shopping I could not miss a goal, every shop window and restaurant tuned into the World Cup allowing me to partake in the match while moving about town.
As that match ended so did our final moments in Brazil, and we sadly stepped into a cab waiting to take us to our flight. We caught the remainder of Ecuador’s win over Honduras before boarding the airport bus to our plane, and with that our adventure came to an end after one last delay to top off the fuel tanks.
After nearly a fortnight of crazy travel, little sleep, and incredibly good times, departure was bittersweet, but we’d do it again in a heartbeat given the opportunity.
After settling in back home to watch the rest of the tournament and ultimately see Brazil’s national team, the Selecao, fall so unfortunately from grace in a crushing semifinal defeat to eventual World Cup winners Germany, a twinge of pain is felt for a country that lives and breathes futebol.
For all the flaws exposed by protests and unfinished sections of stadiums, going to Brazil for the World Cup was a dream come true and Brazilians deserve immense credit for serving as excellent hosts and gracious caretakers of all the traveling fans.
Witnessing first hand the USA’s win over Ghana will always stand out as a highlight, but even more memorable is the warm acceptance of Americans by not only Brazilians but other nationalities as fellow brothers and sisters of the world’s game.
The United States may not be world beaters yet, but the intangible of belief means expectations continue to rise for a country that is now considered a regular in the latter rounds of the World Cup.
Personally I hope it’s only a matter of time before America achieves greater success at the international level, and that someday I can return to Brazil to reminisce while making new memories.