Sunday, February 9, 2014

Cidade Maravilhosa - 3 glorious days (and 3 sultry nights) in Rio

The bustling nightlife in Lapa

I have the hardest time deciding how to write about Rio. It is a city that eludes traditional descriptors. There is just so much to it - so much history, so much beauty and contrast, so much geographic and cultural diversity, so many surprises and enclaves around every corner with their own distinct identity. How do you go about capturing all that in a way that does it justice? Chronologically? By neighborhood? By things that struck me the most? Or by going through the stereotypes, one by one? No, not everyone lives on the beach. Yes, it's safe to walk around at night.

Suffice it to say Rio left quite an irascible impression on us. We weren't there long, so there was only so much we could cover, even going at our usual supersonic pace. But we got a pretty good overview, and it firmly landed on our "top favorite destinations" list.

Lushness in the sprawling botanical gardens at the heart of the city
My overall impression of Rio de Janeiro is one of a city well-worn, old school and classic, like an old pair of fashionable shoes. Walking around, I kept thinking that it feels very... 70's. I may be wrong, and I'm not even going to check, but it felt like the 70s may have been a heyday of sorts for architecture and culture in Rio, and though the glory days may have passed, the city holds on to them with a good bit of dignity. The buildings, particularly the stately beachfront skyscrapers and the fashionable apartment buildings of Leblon, all have a distinctly 70s feel. Not in a run down, dingy way, mind you. In more of a "glorious old dame" way. Does that make sense? I thought it was very charming.

The exclusive addresses of Copacabana

A Sane Clown Posse

the hand-laid mosaic sidewalks that Rio is famous for were part of an employment program by the gorvernment

These are still in use.

Maybe because it's so storied and sprawling, but there's no one overarching identity to this magnificent beast. From the monoliths of the financial district to the bohemian rhapsodies of Lapa, to the artsy, offbeat hills of Santa Teresa, to the hodge-podge heap of wiring, raw concrete and raw sewage that is the Rocinha favela - every corner of the city is its own microcosm that moves to its own rhythm.

The monochrome grandeur of the financial district

The colorful and wild dilapidation of Lapa

The beautiful and quiet Santa Teresa

The self-contained universe of a favela

Green Spaces

There is no question that from a purely aesthetic perspective, Rio has some of the most stunning urban geography on the planet. I mean, come on...

enough of that now.

are you kidding me?

now you're just showing off.
As if that wasn't enough, they have a plethora of amazing urban green spaces, oases of quiet where people stroll in the afternoon to enjoy some shade and birdsong. One of these is the botanical garden at the foot of the Corcovado mountain. Established in 1808 by the Portuguese crown to help acclimate new plant species imported from the West Indies, it was later open to the public to showcase flora indigenous to Brazil.

Another amazing place to wile away an afternoon is Parque Lage (PARkee LAHgeh). It's not the largest or grandest of Rio's parks, but this quiet and beautiful spot was a must-see for us. The land used to belong to a industrial magnate who fell in love with a singer and built her a mansion at the foot of the Corcovado. Could it be any more romantic?

The mansion now houses a school of visual arts that is usually open to the public (but sadly wasn't the day we were there)

There is an outdoor cafe by the pool - not a bad place to have a mid-afternoon caipirinha

A small system of caves can also be found at the park

ruins of an old castle, swallowed by the rainforest at Parque Lage

 The park borders another Rio marvel - the Tijuca National Forest. How many cities have a National Forest within their borders? Tijuca is a national park, and only a fraction of it is contained in Rio. It's an Atlantic rainforest, the type that used to cover this entire area. Now, only 7% of the original forest remains.  You can hike through the woods all the way up to the Christ statue, although that will take hours and hours. We did but a small fraction of the walk.


There is, of course, the Copacabana, the neighborhood synonymous with Rio, the one everyone wants, the one people have in mind when they plan a Rio vacation, and who would blame them? The sun, the coconut stands, that seemingly endless stretch of beach with its crowds of bucolic revelers nursing a beer or kicking around a ball... colorful locals whizzing by on rollerblades. Copacabana is on every traveler's bucket list for a reason.

view of Copacabana from our hotel room.
Rio and beach life are inextricably linked, and it's a beautiful thing. Copa, Leblon, Ipanema with its eponymous and oh-so-Brazilian song - the Cariocas really have something special there. Since we stayed beachfront of the Copa, we ended every day with a stroll along the sand - shoes in one hand, a chilled coconut in another, the otherworldly beauty of Rio's shoreline framing a perfect moment. Let me tell you people, it doesn't get better that this.

But, it is so worth getting away from the beach and exploring Rio's other neighborhoods! Lapa was perhaps my favorite. It has unusual architecture, a distinctly bohemian atmosphere, and is a completely different phenomenon between day and night.

Lapa is not the safest neighborhood in Rio, I guess, but I like gritty neighborhoods when they clearly have something to offer. It feels more atmospheric.  The famous Lapa Steps, for example, one of the area's staple attractions, are advised to be viewed from the base of the staircase, and the top should... how shall I put this... be avoided. I don't know if our guide was exaggerating, but we didn't try to push our luck. I'll say that we never felt remotely threatened: the area is teeming with tourists and locals hanging out, and, even though the crowd is definitely not the same as on the beach, nobody bothers anyone or tries to make trouble.

You will get the occasional wise guy flipping you the bird :D

What's special about Escadria Selarón, aka the Lapa Steps? Well,it started as a side project for a Chilean artist, Jorge Selarón, who single-handedly covered the entire staircase in ornate tile during the 90s as a personal project to beautify the dilapidated steps. It features tiles from virtually every country in the world. Selarón was found dead on his eponymous steps in January 2013, apparently of suicide.

The very unusual St. Sebastian Cathedral in Lapa

inside the cathedral

By night, Lapa becomes a hive of revelry. Crowded open air cafe patios spill out onto the street, dancing can be spotted through many an open door, and the whole neighborhood lights up in a rainbow of colored lights, like a Christmas tree.

Lapa by night

The dramatic lighting, the colorful crowds, the eclectic, peeling facades - all lend an air of distinct theatricality to nighttime Lapa.

The inviting glow of Rio's Scenarium
In our nocturnal wanderings we accidentally stumbled upon a particularly festive building which turned out to be the Rio Scenarium. This restaurant slash nightclub slash kitsch museum is a four story tower of heavy drinking and salsa dancing, set within a glorious collection of Brazilian movie stage props spanning several decades.

We had a really great time here. Even joined a crowd of gyrating hips for a go around the salsa dance floor. Lapa is a great place to spend the night!

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the quiet and artsy enclave of Santa Teresa gracing the top of a hill, with its gorgeous winding narrow streets lined with galleries and cafes. It used to be a wealthy, upper class neighborhood, and plenty of gorgeous mansions attest to its more glamorous past, even if most of them are public buildings now, and not holding up too well.

Santa Teresa

Restaurante Sobrenatural (Supernatural Restaurant) where we had a memorable paella!

mansion under renovation in Santa Teresa

And finally, in stark contrast to all these beautiful and vibrant Rio neighborhoods, the famous endless favelas of Rio live their own life, within the boundaries of the city, and yet in a whole different world. It's kind of a paradox: since most of the favelas are situated in the hills, they are very visually present throughout the city, certainly not a case of "out of sight, out of mind". But they are still, for the most part, entirely self-contained and operate outside the jurisdiction of city authorities, as if the city has basically given up on them. Though, as part of the preparation for the world cup there has been a massive "clean up" campaign initiated by Brazilian cities, whereby a huge police presence helped to expel the drug cartels that ran the favelas and has taken over as the authority in these sprawling heaps of human bodies, concrete, wire tangles and sewage.

Guided tours to the favelas have been offered for a while, and there has never been a doubt in my mind that we would go on one while in Rio. Originally, when I was planning this entry, I was going to write a lengthy essay about this, because I'm familiar with the kind of reaction an admission like that usually elicits. But at some point I decided against it. For one, I am doubtful that anyone would care to read it, but mostly it's because I feel confident enough in my reasons without needing to expend the effort to justify them to others, though I would always welcome a discussion on the subject with anyone who disagrees. For now, I present our visit to the Rocinha favela as is - what we saw and what we learned - and leave the reader to form their own opinions.

some of the best views in the city, if nothing else.

 Rocinha is the largest favela in all of Brazil, though the number of inhabitants is somewhat of a disputed figure. We heard something like 150,000 people, but census data actually shows just over a third of that. I suppose it's not very easy to count residents in a shanty town where everything is shifty and flies under the radar.

It's a massively sprawling neighborhood that nevertheless feels tight and stiflingly claustrophobic throughout. It's up and down with no sense of any discernible levels - just ledges and staircases sticking out every which way, the windows of one house looking out at the door stoop of of another, everything clinging precariously to slimy, uneven alleys with gnarly wads of wires running overhead.

Favelas started out as improptu military barracks in the 19th century, but really exploded in size and population when rural residents began moving to the cities in ever larger numbers in the 70s. Without jobs, wealth, or connections in the cities, often they simply built ramshackle structures next to existing ones. The cities never endorsed these slums or extended utilities or sanitation services to these neighborhoods, so of course they became associated with extreme poverty, crime, and desperation.

Oddly, that's a perception that's fed from the outside and doesn't quite gel with reality as seen from within. Though far from beautiful or prosperous, Rocinha appears to have a pretty normal daily life. Nothing visually differentiates a favela resident from any other Carioca - they dress the same, they come in white, black, and every shade of brown skin color in between. Most of them have electricity and plumbing, most even have TV and internet, though those particular trappings of modern life are pilfered illegally (that's where all that scary DIY wiring comes in).

Sometimes it is a wonder how the whole thing is still standing.

Not all the structures are crumbling, some homes are actually quite nice. Almost everyone owns a small business: a bakery, convenience store or hair salon. Many residents go to work in the city, living in a favela is no longer automatically associated with destitution and poverty. Everyone is generally friendly and in good spirits, as you would expect from your average Brazilian.

Favelas continue to be, and will probably always remain, a politically and culturally charged topic. Things that are black and white in the more affluent parts of the city, like drug cartel presence, become a lot more nuanced in a favela, where the drug cartels were often the only respectable authority that kept relative peace and invested back in the community. When the police ran them out and took over peace keeping duties, many allegations of abuse followed; people claimed that the cops did not respect or care for residents in a way that cartel members did.Nothing is black and white in a favela, but it was an incredible interesting, if at times jarring experience, to see it first hand.


Of these, there is no shortage in Rio. Especially if you want a jaw-dropping view with that. Our attempt at Corcovado mountain and the Christ statue was completely thwarted by weather! A dense, low cloud cover hung about so thickly, that we could barely make out the statue, let alone the city below!

We had better luck from a lower platform of Corcovado, and though the vew wasn't quite as sprawling, it was still pretty damn impressive from there.

That same day, we had similarly crappy luck on the Sugar Loaf, with this being perhaps the best picture to describe weather conditions:

But luckily, the next day was much better and on our second attempt we finally saw Rio the way it's meant to be seen.

As a final chapter to the story of the Marvelous City, I have to make a special mention about the street art. Every major city in the world will have its fair share, of course, but usually I wouldn't hesitate to use the word "graffiti" when describing the work of intrepid street "artists" anywhere in the world. In Rio, street art is sometimes breathtakingly beautiful - vibrant and skillfully executed, a turbulent form of self expression fit for a turbulent city.

The best part is that it's everywhere. Mural sized oeuvres in wealthy neighborhoods, and small pieces on grimy highway overpasses, these usually of a political or satirical nature. It takes a while to realize that you're seeing this phenomenon, to appreciate that the whole city is tattooed with messages of anger, humor, hope, football rivalry, and shouts of color, as a single huge outdoor museum.

Apparently all this wanton and unsolicited self expression was a problem for the authorities who actively fought street artists, until supposedly they realized that this phenomenon can't be curbed, and street art was decriminalized in 2009. Anyone could practice openly, as long as they had the building owner's permission. I don't know where Rio gets its throngs of talented artists, but the result is no less than uplifting.

If you go to Rio, don't make the mistake we made. Don't find out too late that you can take a guided tour of some of the city's most famous street art!

Finally, a few random notes that don't really fit in any category:

The Hippie Craft Fair of Ipanema is a fun way to spend Sunday morning, and a great place to buy art, handmade goods, and best of all - to people watch.

Juice bars. They are everywhere, on every corner of every street. They look a little dodgy sometimes, but don't let it fool you. They have a plethora of scrumptious tropical fruits they will juice or blend right in front of your eyes and provide you with a cup or bowl of deliciousness (and a vitamin boost) you won't soon forget. Do try the acai bowl with honey, granola and nuts. Oh myy.

Sugar. I don't know what kind of mineral deficiencies Brazilians have, but they frikkin' love their frikkin' sugar. Too much of it on everything. The caipirinhas are sticky sweet, and I actually like sweet flavors, but even I was gagging. Beware.

Definitely pack some Immodium and probiotics, or you will have to learn the Portuguese words for unsavory bodily functions at some point on your trip.  :)


Oh Rio, you are a beast, and a beauty, all in one. Truly a magnificent city, and we loved every minute we spent in your tropical embrace.

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