Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Thanks again Emirates. Lovely flight. We had to get up around 4:30am to make a 7:30am departure, but for some unsettling reason we got a call from reception at 2:30am asking us if we were expecting any visitors to our room. No. Just a wake up call at 4:30am. Still.. it made going back to sleep difficult. Thankfully once we were on-board and on our way, we managed to firstly wangle an exit aisle seat, and also skip the big queue by joining the queue to check-in for Jeddah. Typical backpackers.
We were both surprisingly fresh after the 14 hour flight and ran up to Level 3 at the airport to get cash. The Lonely Planet guide is a few years old now and is pretty forthcoming when describing the level of street crime in Rio. So we’re looking at everyone with suspicion, wondering if they’re gonna be the one to try and steal our bags. The air’s thicker and tropical, there’s a hellava lot more green around than that of Dubai and there’s a nice warmth in the atmosphere. We find the Blue Buses outside the terminal, fumble around explaining to the driver where we need to go. ‘Posto Nevo’… ‘Ipanema..Posto Nevo’.. which is basically Ipanema beach, beach box nine, but our gringo pronunciation wasn’t helping. Keep an eye out for it, we concluded, and fumbled our way further onto a packed bus.
First impressions of Rio, well, we entered Centro from the port and some of the favelas on the outskirts of town through some rotten traffic. There’s a whole bunch of tagging and graffiti giving a dirty face to some wonderful period buildings. But the setting is absolutely beautiful; there’s those iconic limestone mountains embracing the city, bellowing tropical forest and favela neighborhoods. Some would argue their beauty but I’d say they’re an iconic part of Rio, these bricked and concrete ramshackle dwellings piled one on top of the other, cascading down the hills through the forests with all assortment of colours. But more on that later..
We jumped off the bus into light rain, having just come out of 5 straight days of rain apparently, and managed to get into our hostel pretty quick. The Mango Tree has been really great, nice fresh breakfasts in the morning, free wi-fi, clean, uncountable amount of bathrooms, great people etc.. but it’s also very well located, just a block back from the beach. First night in we grabbed a few beers and a few iconic caipirinha’s.. a lime/sugar/cachaca cocktail.. very potent after 5 days of no drinking. The hostel has a small bar setup and it’s pretty cheap so we finished our drinks and went to bed.
We strolled up Ipanema from Beach Box nine.. toward and past Leblon up the hill to the lookout. The Brazilians are just grabbing life with both hands. Most people were wearing swimwear or work-out wear along the beach promenade, which is tiled in the same chipped tile block pattern you see all over Rio. Most of that clothing is brightly coloured in tones you haven’t seen for decades. And it’s usually pretty tight and short as well. I even saw this old guys testicles.
They’re also pretty brown, have some amazing hairstyles and are wonderfully sculptured. There must be a massive investment in time for body beautification.. thankfully I felt pretty well at home here. There’s some loud talking, gesticulation and a certain amount of intensity in engagement here but they’re friendly people and very helpful. The sun and warmth is just perfect, about 23 degrees and that warming sun, not that intense ultra UV sun you can get back home.
The most expensive promenade in Brazil has a wide mix of buildings, some with that built-in-80’s-and-not-touched-sin ce look, with bulky AC units hanging off them like moles. Others are pretty new and swish. The streets back from the beach are laden with beautifully shady trees and there’s corner food outlets serving everything from fruit shakes, to these amazing sandwiches and burgers or grilled chicken and broccoli rice. We’ve had it all, some really good and not as expensive as we were expecting.
We made a quick ‘hi there’ stop at Copacobana and then the next day jumped on the local bus to make our way up to one of the New Wonders of the World, Christ the Redeemer statue standing 40 meters tall at about 700 meters up on top of Corvado mountain. The local buses here don’t have suspension, I’m quite convinced of that, and the drivers are maniacs as well so it’s a pretty hairy ride. Had I brought along a neck-brace (for the loaded clutch starts), knee pads (for sliding into the chair in front under heavy braking), and a helmet (for when Brazilian passengers tumble into me).. I might have survived better.
Though there’s tagging everywhere along the way, there’s some incredible street-art as well. World standard stuff and it’s everywhere. We got off at Largo do Machado grabbed our tickets for the 11:40am tram up to the statue.. which meant we had an hour or so to kill. We wandered around the local area, took some shots of some great local houses and waited around in the nearby park. Like all of these things, there’s crazy people in the queues to get on the trams and chaos trying to find a seat. Once those issues are sorted we’re on our way, with a Samba band playing for the way up. Ears pop and there’s glimpses of amazing views on the way up. Blue of the ocean inter-played with green and white of forest and housing and then the grays and the monolithic size of the surrounding limestone peaks.
At the top of all the stairs it’s crowded and hot but the statue commands attention and it’s an impressive sight. In Art Deco style with giant arms outreached, it has this serene calming composure despite the hoards of tourists posing with arms outstretched, and the photographer lying on the ground to get the shot. I so nearly stood on so many people and by the end, was walking through shots because it just got so ridiculous waiting for people. Get onto Google or Flickr and search for Christ Redeemer.. I’m probably in half the shots.
The view is the other half of the attraction. The perspective reminded me a lot of the Eagles nest in Austria, in that you get nearly 360 degrees of view. We shared a Coke with some bees before heading back down and getting on the tram.
We’ve taken in nightly drinks at the beach bars along the promenade. The ocean is pretty wild here at Ipanema, which in fact translates to ‘dangerous waters’ so we haven’t done any swimming. But it’s fun to watch countless tourists try. Get swept away, nearly drown. Try again.
We took in a favela tour as well. I’d had some reservations as I’m not overly comfortable with the concept of slum tourism but we gave it a go and it worked out okay. Simone, a charismatic Brazilian guide with awesome frizzy hair and this kind of slowly spoken, self-assured English that was hypnotic. Along for the ride were some older American ladies, one whose only question for the day was ‘Was that a cough or a sneeze’ when poor old Simone sneezed at one of the community funded schools. I was a bit skeptical when we got out at the first favela, because Simone lead us straight over to some souvenir stalls and said ‘Wow.. these are lovely souvenirs’ .. uh huh.. but it quickly became obvious that the sellers were part of the favela community and we’d actually be helpful by purchasing. Thankfully those American ladies coughed up because you can’t trust backpackers to fork out for anything.
The favelas started as a community project due to lack of government funding for working families (thanks Julia). These communities developed their own housing and they developed quickly. There’s a massive obvious divide in wealth in Rio, we’ve been told that some 10% of the population earn 50% of total income. People in the favelas earn just 660 Riels a month (roughly
$300 AUD) wheres you get people living in nearby neighborhoods on 20,000 Riels per month. The beauty about Ipanema beach is though, that given the diversity of population it’s not obvious as to who comes from where. The guy earning 20,000 Riels per month can have a game of beach volleyball with the guy who earns 660 without any issue.
The issue is that where’s there’s lower income communities and police corruption, you get criminal gangs instituting governance to protect their communities. So the reputation for the favelas is drugs, crime and gangs. What we learned is that generally that’s not a reality. It’s not unlike some of the slums we’ve seen around India and Asia in general, but given the landscape they’re much deeper intertwined and cascaded.
Our first minor brush with street crime came as we walked into Lapa from Centro. A bunch of street kids noticed the camera strap around Rebeccas wrist and motioned to swipe it.. laughing. But it was still unsettling and we realised that you can quickly turn a corner and enter a bad part of town. We turned around further a long the road because we got the attention of some kids, who were (ironically) break dancing on a corner.
Centro is like a whole other city.. beautiful imperial buildings with that marzipan wedding cake kind of fashioning. Cupolas and frescos with he grit of the constant stream of passing buses.
We climbed the beautifully tiled steps at Escadaria Selaron and walked the steep back roads up to Santa Teresa, a small, bohemian town at the top of the Lapa hills. We took in lunch at this beautiful old mansion’s courtyard under a fig tree and wandered the steep, cobbled roads around the neighborhood before descending down the tiled steps and wandering back to the hostel.
We leave for the beaches tomorrow. Rio is an unforgettable place.