Brasilia is the capital of Brazil and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I needed to be in Florida after my time in Brazil and discovered that the cheapest flight was from Brasilia. Rather than spend 4 days in the city, I embarked on a 3-day road trip to Chapada Dos Veiradeiros and on the way back visited the Vale do Amanhecer cult.
At last, it was time to visit Brasilia itself.
August 2, 2023: The Weirdest City
Because I still had the rental car today, I decided to prioritize places further from the city center. My first stop was Brasilia National Park, just on the outskirts of town. The park was created to protect a reservoir containing Brasilia´s water supply but also contains some chaparral and swimming pools.
The main swimming pool seemed to be quite the place to see and be seen and was swarming with raccoon-like animals called coatis.
The concept of Brasilia was created by Juscelino Kubitschek, then presidential candidate, in the mid 1950´s. He wanted to create a planned capital in the interior of Brazil to 1) more evenly distribute resources and power around the country instead of just in the southeast and 2) encourage development of the interior. He picked a location close to the geographic center of the country in what was uninhabited chapada.
Once taking power in 1956, Kubitschek enlisted Lucio Costa, student of Le Corbusier and winner of a national contest to design the capital. The modernist city would be built in the shape of an airplane. Monumental government buildings would line the center aisle and people would live in the two wings. Instead of single-family homes, people would live in 6-story apartment buildings in giant city blocks called superquadras (superblocks). Retail and dining would be positioned on short stretches dividing the superquadras. The city was designed to fight two major problems of Brazilian cities: inequality and traffic.
To make this visionary plan a reality, Kubitschek turned to legendary architect Oscar Niemeyer, structural architect Joaquim Cardozo and landscape designer Roberto Brule Marx. Construction took just 41 months, and the city was inaugurated by President Kubitschek on April 21, 1960.
While Brasilia might sound like a city planner´s wet dream, the reality feels like a bad combination of Disneyland´s Tomorrowland and Washington D.C. The modernist buildings have not aged well and there is just too much empty space for the city to have any life.
My first monument is the Praça dos Cristais, a crystal-shaped statue in a pond in front of the Brazilian army HQ.
Next, I visited the Memorial JK, a museum dedicated to Kubitschek.
The first floor contains the original offices of him and his wife while the second floor contains artifacts from his life.
In the middle of the second floor is his tomb. The circular chamber has red velvet carpeting. In the center, beneath a red stained glass is the trapezoidal metal casket engraved with the words O Fundador (The Founder). This must be the chicest tomb on the planet.
To reach my next stop, the Centro Cultural Banco de Brazil, I had to drive down the Elixo Monumental, the center aisle of the airplane that is Brasilia. When passing by the presidential palace, the Palacio Planalto, I caught a glimpse of President Lula giving a speech!
The roads in Brasilia are terribly designed. The on/off ramps to get onto the roads are dangerously short. Additionally, instead of building traffic lights to accommodate left turns on some roads, you instead have to U turn into 3 lanes of traffic, cut way over to the right and then make a right turn. I digress.
The Centro Cultural Banco de Brazil (CCBB) is a chain of cultural centers sponsored by the central bank. I have already visited the locations in Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte (one week prior).
This location….is awful. There were 2 exhibits and each one required a separate free ticket that I obtained at the front. Why do you need tickets when the museum is always free? I will never know.
The first exhibit was, for lack of a better description, the Museum of Ice Cream if it had a $1,000 budget. The walls were hot pink, but the art pieces were random like a pile of bricks, or a plastic bottle wrapped in fencing.
The other exhibit was a single work: a bunch of painted cardboard suspended from the ceiling with strings.
The weirdest part about the exhibits, besides how terrible they were, was the crazy number of staff. Each room had at least 3 guards. Since I was the only person there, they had their eyes glued on me. In total, I spent 15 minutes here, which was a real shocker since Lonely Planet gave this museum a star meaning it’s a top sight.
After returning my rental car at the airport, I got an Uber to a superquadra for dinner. The place was called Liban (Portuguese for Lebanon) but had a logo of a camel in front of the Great Pyramid. Both countries are far so close enough, I guess! Anyways the restaurant was packed. I ordered a beer and steak. Then, I got another Uber to my surprisingly nice hostel.
August 3, 2023: Elixo Monumental
Today was my day to fully explore the center of Brasilia.
The main activity of the day was my pre-booked tour of the National Congress at 9:30. I decided to walk there from the hostel. The roads do have sidewalks but crossing the streets is a challenge since there are few crosswalks- especially along the central axis of the city.
Since I had some time before, I started my day at the Santuario Sao Joao Bosco (Sanctuary of St. John Bosco, the patron saint of Brasilia). The modernist church looks like Saint-Chapelle. I also grabbed a tapioca and passionfruit juice for breakfast.
I reached the National Congress building 45 minutes before the tour. A sign pointed me to the politician entrance, but the doorman said that I could not enter and directed me to a ramp 100 meters away. After standing out in the hot sun at the ramp for 20 minutes, I then double checked my ticket and realized that I needed to go to a specific building entrance. A policeman directed me to the far side of the building. Unfortunately, due to the location of the building in the middle of a ravine, I had to walk 15 minutes to walk around the building.
Now on the backside of the building, the guard there told me that I needed to go back to the first entrance. Luckily, he was able to escort me across the side-lawn so I didn´t have to do the 15-minute walk again.
This time, the guard let me in, and I sat on a comfy chair in the air conditioning. While waiting, I saw many politicians and their entourages enter the building.
While the tour was supposed to start at 9:30, the guide did not show up until 10:10, a full 40 minutes late.
The tour took us all around the Niemeyer-designed UNESCO World Heritage Site building. The place was packed with politicians, their assistants, and the media. We were very easily able to walk right up to the politicians and listen to their conversations.
Brazil´s National Congress is made up of two houses: the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. It is structured much like the US Congress. The Chamber of Deputies awards seats to each state based on its population, while the Senate gives each state 3 seats.
There are a few interesting members of Congress. Numerous members used to be footballers and continue to use 1 name such as Sao Paulo´s Giordiano. Another Sao Paulo Senator, Mara Gabrili is a quadriplegic and votes by moving her eyes to the right or left.
The first chamber we entered the Senate, the smaller of the two chambers. The modernist chamber has a stunning ceiling that reminded me of the Alhambra. The floor itself is blue velvet. Senators are seated in rows in front of a raised podium. The front of the blue velvet carpet podium contains a vacuum-etched flag of Brazil. This was apparently done by the janitor one night in 1990´s who was overjoyed by the birth of his son. The politicians liked it so much that the janitor has re-vacuumed the flag of Brazil every 2 weeks since.
The Chamber of Deputies was in session. While we were able to visit, unfortunately I could not take pictures. That said, the Senate chamber was much prettier.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed the tour despite all the logistical issues.
Next, I continued down the Elixo Monumental (Brazil´s National Mall) to visit the Niemeyer monuments. The ministry buildings lined the sides like a bigger version of Albany, New York. Brazil has more ministries than the US and some of them have interesting names including Ministry of Sports, Ministry of Societal Development and assistance, Family and Fight against Hunger, Ministry of Racial Equality, Ministry of Fishing and Aquaculture and Ministry of Women.
My next stop was the National Cathedral, which looks just like Space Mountain at Disneyland.
The inside, however, is gorgeous!
Next door was the Museu Nacional Da Republica which looks like a planetarium.
Inside is a mediocre art museum.
20 minutes of more walk along the eerily empty and not pedestrian friendly Elixo Monumental led me to the TV tower, which stands at the exact center of the city. Access to the top was free and the views were spectacular.
For lunch, I walked over to a nearby mall. The food court was packed. Following the crowd, I got a churrasco.
The Elixo Monumental has a few other important areas. One of them is the Three Powers Square, which is surrounded by the National Congress, Presidential Palace, and Supreme Tribunal. Earlier in the year, supporters of Jair Bolsonaro trashed and damaged the square in their attempt to overturn the presidential election. The square still is in poor shape.
The Supreme Tribunal was hosting a major event: the swearing in of a new Justice. I stood outside with a small crowd as the politicians all arrived in their cars and entered. Lula, the president of Brazil did not show during the 30 minutes I was waiting around.
Another famous Niemeyer building is the Itamaraty Palace, home of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. While the building normally hosts public tours, they were abruptly stopped the day before I arrived for an unknown reason.
Having now seen all the main sights in Brasilia, I decided to go visit another cult. The Templo da Boa Vontade (Temple of Good Will) was established by José de Paiva Netto in 1995. The focal point is a gigantic crystal affixed to the top of a pyramid. The crystal apparently contains the image of Jesus and worshippers are encouraged to stand under it to receive Jesus´s light. I made the terrible mistake of walking under the crystal without taking off my shoes and without goes through the labyrinth painted on the floor. The staff scolded me, but I was able to defuse the situation by playing the “I don´t know what is going on” card.
Continuing on, the temple has an Egyptian-themed meditation room because “the dead never die”. I also got scolded for taking a picture of the room.
Further along, were drawings of the random groupings of celebrities worshipped by the cult. This was equally as weird as the famous visitors list in Havana´s Hotel Nacional. Some of the people worshipped by the cult include Elanor Roosevelt, Louis Armstrong, Nostradamus, Florence Nightingale, Beethoven, Pele, and Eva Peron.
The final room of the visit contained numerous awards won by the founder Jose de Paiva Netto.
These cultists definitely did not like me, and I feel lucky to have not gotten thrown out.
Having seen all that I needed to, I took an Uber back to the hostel where I ran into none other than Walter from my hostel in Chapada Dos Veiradeiros. We decided to eat dinner together and catch up. He completed the 2-day trek and hitchhiked his way to Alto Paraiso where he was able to get a bus to Brasilia.
We then went to bed and the next morning I took an Uber to the airport to fly to Miami.
Brasilia is very different from any other Brazilian city and one of the weirdest cities I have ever visited.
It is very spread out and built for cars. Few areas of the city have the density needed to have pedestrian life, except for the central bus station itself. Because it is a newer city in an otherwise uninhabited area, there is no local culture. The flip side of this is you can find piece of culture/food from every part of Brazil.
The architecture is cool but has not aged well. Many of the buildings do not appear functional for the needs of the modern Brazilian government.
Although it won’t be your favorite city, Brasilia is unique, and it is certainly worth spending at least a day here.