Running amongst the dominant, iconic scenery of Rio was a huge rush: I made my way along the horseshoe of neighbouring Copacobana beach, under the towering Sugarloaf Mountain. It’s a stunning, party beach scene where some of the biggest free rock concerts in the world have played. It’s also one of the hottest places where people gather each New Years Eve: two million people, dressed in white, ring in a new beginning the festive, Brazilian way – with singing, sass and lots of dancing. But - as is often the case - my jog also had a purpose. I wanted to check out our next hotel, the Copacobana Palace.
I noticed that only the top rooms have a balcony and by then Sheira and I were totally in the mood for Rio’s young, modern, buzzy energy. The crowd was a bit conservative, old worldly for us and I found the atmosphere flat; in the end I cancelled the booking. Even so, it is a really beautiful, classic hotel that’s worth visiting. We popped in one afternoon and had an excellent crème brûlée at the really upmarket Pérgula restaurant, amongst wealthy Russians smoking cigars and older, European style gents in their sorbet-coloured Lacoste pullovers…
I am often alone on my morning runs around the world. Not in Rio! The other runners and joggers on Ipanema Beach where we were staying fascinated me. By 6.00am there is a constant flood backwards and forwards: people pushing prams, young men jogging, old women walking with their mate. I loved the company…
Crossing the Avenue Vieira Souto to hit the beach goes way beyond a traveler’s usual ‘which way does traffic go here?’question because the direction changes throughout the day according to the flow. And there is no pedestrian crossing - so look out! The Hotel Fasano beach attendants make sure that there is a beautiful layout for guests on their private section of Ipanema beach: chairs, mattresses, towels and an umbrella set you up to enjoy the whole scene on the beach - which is really something! The local Latino and black melting pot parades by. Gorgeous girls, joggers, surfers, a really ripped muscle guy with a Grace Jones look…
The locals want to make money from the wealthier tourists of course, so people approach selling wares like popcorn, drinks and clothing. One guy came up to me with delicious hot peanuts in a simple funnel of paper, another had delicious looking, fresh prawns on a stick; I had a laugh with all of them. There was a beefy guy selling passionfruit caiprahinas, the famous white rum and sugar based Brazilian cocktail, right on the beach, so we called him over and he made them for us on the spot.
I also took a photo of an extraordinary old man with eyes that look like they have seen several lifetimes. He had actually ploughed the beach for coins a few times; I felt a little sorry for him. But when it was time for a smoke he would just sit back on his box of drinks and ice-cream and spark up. It was a classic, Ipanema beach moment and it’s one of my favorite shots - it really begs the question, what have those eyes seen?
From the moment you open your blinds, no matter whether you’re staying on Copacabana’s moon shaped beach, or the Ipanema or Leblon strip, there is a constant flow of people exercising. These are really sexy people who just know how to live life and burn calories. They jog, walk dogs, cycle, roll by on skateboards, and work that beach. There is always a game of volleyball or beach soccer going on – even at 3 am. I enjoy the sheer energy of locals of all ages. People don’t curl up and disappear here when they get old - they seem to embrace life and laugh right to the end, which I love being around.
Soaking up the atmosphere by the ocean is such a fantastic, beautiful experience - don’t feel guilty if you visit Rio and just chill on the beach. Take some time - it’s the main attraction.
A not–to- be- missed Rio moment…
Rio life is lived out on the streets. Each neighbourhood has a distinct personality and natural rhythm, which you can uncover by exploring the city on foot. At 6pm all the shutters are up, giving no indication of the buzz that is going to spill out onto the streets a mere hour later when the neighbourhood fills with work people finished for the day.
A walk through Centro, downtown in the old financial district took us past the CCBB (Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil), a beautifully restored 200-year old building with high vaulted ceilings, once the former Bank of Brazil headquarters and really worth seeing. It has been converted into a culture centre - with grand spaces, theatres, and a cinema, creating an arty oasis of lunchtime concerts, exhibitions, plays and art films festivals to the commercial city.
If the safe, generic cocoon of the Western style malls leaves you with a yearning for some local grit, there is a somewhat unsavoury but really interesting neighbourhood called SAARA (which stands for Society of Friends of Rua Alfândega and Surroundings), an historic district of 11 criss-crossed streets in Rio’s Old Downtown area near the docklands where Jewish, Arab, Mediterranean and Argentinean merchants have been trading for hundreds of years, creating a booming street market culture that is now being sidelined by Asian competitors.
We loved getting close to the real-life, tug of war atmosphere of a market with the catch cries, and bargain basement wares. It’s an El Dorado of knockoffs and ‘fabulous fakes:’ software, movies, music, bags, jewelry, brands like Nikes and fast fashion. It’s also a great option if you want a change from the trendy restaurants of Ipanema and Leblon and love hole in the wall, ethnic food, from Arab to Argentinian. Immigrant communities pour in to shop and eat, adding flavour to the street life - which goes into overdrive when Carnivale fever hits, as Saara is one of the best places to shop for it.
We would love to see the streets around Rua Alfândega when they are decorated and buzzing with people putting their festive look together; apparently spontaneous samba bursts out on the street. But it’s not for the faint hearted. There is a slight whiff of illegality, including men handing out sex flyers promoting prostitution. When one of the market guys that I casually took a photo of wanted to take my head off we knew it was time to tiptoe away. When the shops are shut on Sunday the area becomes deserted and is actually considered unsafe.
It has to be said that Rio is still a city where you have to be cautious in general. Although there has been a big improvement and tourism is welcome, there is still crime in the streets. Don’t tempt fate: keep your bling to yourself, don’t carry lots of cash and be aware of what’s around you. It’s totally worth it.
SANTA TEREZA is another edgy district that is an absolute must to meander through because it shows another side of Rio; we loved the charm of hilly, cobblestoned streets, alleys and colonial mansions with leafy gardens. It’s a bohemian spot for musicians, performance artists, circus performers and resident artists who also have galleries here. We saw plenty of local art, crafts and Brazilian souvenirs at cheaper prices as well as fine arts. You can see Castro Maya’s own collection of famous Brazilian painters like Di Cavalcanti and his Picassos, Miros and Dalis at the Chacara do Ceu Museum.
The atmosphere is magical… I remember the bell of the yellow streetcars that constantly takes locals up and down the hill, crossing a beautiful old viaduct, the Lapa Arches. Older traditions and underground subculture are all part of the melting pot here. The Order of the Barefoot Carmelite Nuns live in isolation in a Carmelite convent, alongside travelers who choose to stay in this neighbourhood as a sleepier alternative to the slick, modern beach scene. Even those just passing through are rewarded with gorgeous views over Rio and Guanabara Bay, as the hills of Santa Theresa are just below the Christ Statue on Corcovado Mountain.
Although Sheira admits to a lot of head swiveling at the local guys, those aren’t the only views in Rio! The CHRIST THE REDEEMER statue on the peak of Corcovado Mountain has a presence that goes beyond its gigantic size. This statue overlooks the city like a stone shepherd, and is at its most beautiful when emerging from the mountain clouds - you half expect choirs of angels to start singing! “The Christ” looks down amongst all the people of the city, no matter where they are, but it’s a very different sensation to stand right at the bottom of the towering 38-metre figure, right by the little chapel at its base.
The whole theme of reaching the heavens rings true when you make the steep ascent up there in a red, retro looking cogwheel train that heads straight up through the Atlantic Rainforest. As you leave the Cosme Velho District, the vista becomes increasingly spectacular and bird-like, over all the Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon beaches, the lush Botanical Gardens, the Jockey Club, Lagoon and Maracana soccer stadium then finally all the way out to the Serra do Órgãos mountain range. I would love to see the same view lit up at night; it would be like a magic carpet of stars…
The statue’s left arm points north to Rio’s zona norte, and the right arm reaches to the south zone, the zona sul. You don’t have to be religious to be touched by the way the statue’s open arms embrace the city, perfectly symbolising the warmth of the Brazilian people. It was my big photographic challenge for the trip and although I took a lot of shots I still don’t feel I got it right. I’ll try again next time - I’d love to see your attempts to capture the magic of the city’s icon.
Even when Sheira and I were on a budget as young kids in our 20's, we never liked traveling in packs or on buses, being wrangled and dictated to. But we were willing to go into the tourist bubble and take a cable car to visit THE SUGARLOAF MOUNTAIN – nothing would keep us from one of the world’s most spectacular sights. Although we find it confronting to travel with lots of tourists in a pack, the cable car itself is really new, big and comfortable.
You make the ascent to the Sugarloaf in two stages: the first cable car takes you up Urca Hill to a wonderful large plateau, the Morro da Urca where there is a restaurant, amphitheatre and interesting monkeys called marmosets running around. They came from Portugal saguis or mikos. You pass the ‘Jardim Botânico’ botanical gardens, which we will definitely stop at next time. Originally created by the Portuguese royal family, its lush, Garden of Eden setting is the perfect showcase for exotic plant species from all over the world.
While the Sugarloaf dominates the city, once you swap places it is the astonishing landscape laid out before you that takes the starring role. You see the cruise ships pulling into port, the Clube Naval yacht club on Botafago Beach, the velvety green carpet of Flamingo Park, the curve of Copacabana Beach, the Corcovado mountain, towns across the Guanabara Bay and ringroads like spaghetti that spool out into long bridges that head out to the country like the Niteroi bridge we crossed on our trip to coastal town, Buzios.
Christ the Redeemer is made from reinforced concrete and soapstone
The Sugarloaf was around 600 million years before we got there.
Its local name in Portugese is Pao de Acucar
A cable car has been taking visitors up since 1912
It’s a 2000 foot journey
We found our visit to 16th century monastery, the Mosteiro de São Bento, incredible because the monks have created an oasis of peace and prayerful silence in the Centro, at the middle of one of the world’s most bustling cities.
The exterior is quite deceiving: architecturally it has the same simplicity and purity as the Gregorian chant you’ll hear when the monks celebrate the Eucharist at mass. But inside you’ll find an elaborately decorated wonderland. The church has all the over the top flourishes and gilded woodcarvings of the Baroque and Rococco style, with an ornate golden altar (which was disassembled by the monks and shown at the Guggenheim in 2003). It’s a real world unto itself, with its own Theological School and the most elite private boys school in the whole of Brazil. I found the monks quite inspiring and enjoyed helping an elderly one make his way along the street outside. The entrance is in the beautiful Rua São Bento, which is also worth seeing for its three historically intact lower, middle and upper class dwellings, called Eira, Beira and Tribeira that give you a perfect picture of the old Brazil, when slaves would hear mass outside the church. A must for architecture and history buffs – or even someone who wants a temporary sanctuary from all their shopping and partying in the outside world.
One of the highlights of our visit to Rio was a private tour of the Rocinha ‘favela’ - one of the shantytown, or squatter’s neighbourhoods that are dotted over the hills of Rio, adjacent to the high rises and penthouses of their wealthy neighbours.
We didn’t want to tune out Rio’s urban poor. As Sheira says, how can we truly experience this city without coming in contact with the lifeblood of the community? People who work in the town live there; soccer players rise from the streets; music from the samba schools is in the air - it’s part of the spirit of Rio!
Hotels don’t really promote the visits, assuming that most westerners are too scared or confronted to deal with slums, but I urge you to go. Once you have traveled this far, it is truly illuminating and thought provoking to go that bit further out of your comfort zone. There is a minimal risk factor, as long as you listen to your private guide, which is mandatory due to the intensity of the poverty and the presence of drug lords. The favelas are still controlled by the gangs (and policed by its own people), but are quite safe as long as another gang doesn't venture into someone else’s territory.
Our guide Rita Ico, personally took us from the Fasano Hotel at Ipanema beach, the sexy, glamorous part of Rio, to the Via Gava entrance of the Rocinha favelo – a mere 35-minute drive away. You enter a world of shacks, huts with corrugated iron roofs and concrete buildings with (ironically) priceless views down the hill to the ocean. No sooner do we arrive than cheeky street kids jump on the jeep and hitch a ride up the windy uphill roads with us.
Rita read the law of the land for us, constantly telling us, ‘now I want you to put your camera away’ or ‘now you can use it.’ In this world, some people definitely want to remain anonymous, alongside plenty of honest workers who are just comfortably going about their business. We also visited a Rocinha resident’s home, ‘Carlinho's Place’ to connect with the kindly Carlinho, our portly guardian angel with salt and pepper hair who befriended us while we toured the favelo. It’s a great system: if there is any random trouble, someone who lives in these very streets can neutralise the situation.
The favela experience hits the senses with a huge array of sights and smells. There was pollution, even raw sewerage at times in the street but then also spicy, sweet food smells coming out of homes. You walk amongst a huge contrast of people over hours; high pitched honks from all the motorbikes mingle with the constant conversation of old people sitting on tomato boxes, gossiping in Portuguese and watching the world pass them by. Grinning, big-bellied guys with no shirts and walnut faces walk alongside walls that are a riot of graffiti and faded advertising.
Kids from these parts don’t become soccer players by playing on fields - they learn as soon as they can walk in the confined spaces of the narrow backstreets. Because motorbikes can negotiate them so well they act as an unofficial taxi service; you’ll see an old lady with shopping bags or a pregnant woman hop on the back to get home. The streetscape has the crooked charm of somewhere that organically just sprung up - with temporary looking dwellings illegally piggy backing on the electricity grid so that hundreds of cables groan on. After years of official promises that the favelas were going to be cleaned up and given infrastructure, these people have simply got on with their lives. It’s quite a moving testament to the human ability to just adapt and survive. That spirit of triumph through adversity is present in places like the Rocinha samba academy, a joyous place that Rita pointed out to us. Click on their website www.academicosdarocinha.com and you’ll can get a little jolt of batacuda drums.
Rita also surprised us with a beautiful experience – a visit to the UMPMRS kindergarten (which stands for “Uniao de mulheres pro melhoramento da roupa suja”) in Rua um no 325, founded by an amazing Italian woman called Barbara Olivi who visited the favelas and never left. Seeing Rocinha’s young children roaming the streets inspired her to start a charity based pre-school where the kids can be educated while their parents work. These gorgeous children where brimming with high spirits and could sense that Sheira is a natural mum: they were jumping all over her.
There are 752 favelas in Rio
20% of Rio’s population live there
I knew that simply doing a tour of the famous Estádio do Maracanã, South America’s biggest stadium, could not compete with the high-energy experience of seeing a game on the field - not in a country as soccer mad as Brazil! “Futebol” is everywhere here - you see the fancy footwork amongst the kids on every street; the tribal loyalties pass down from father to son so each person you meet has their team. It’s the national passion!
This stadium, nicknamed simply “the Maracanã” after the small river that flows nearby, means a lot to the city’s civic pride. It opened in 1950 to host the FIFA World Cup (Brazil lost to Uruguay just moments before the end of the match, leaving the audience in shocked silence) and will not only host the final again in 2014 but the Olympic Games ceremonies in 2016.
But most of the time, it’s the major Rio football clubs, like Botafogo, Flamengo, Fluminense and Vasco da Gamaplay, that play each other here. Sheira and I found it thrilling to experience one of these games live, not just as a sports event but a cultural and emotional one: it’s a great way for an outsider to participate in the life and beating heart of the city.
We organised our tickets through our hotel guide, but most locals buy their tickets at the entrances; there will always be hawkers hovering with extras when the games sell out.
The giant, iconic circle holds 88,992 spectators, so everything was bigger and less intimate than the game we saw in the Estadio Jose Amalfitani in Argentina (See BUENOS AIRES). All the way back to the “arquibancada” seats in the rafters, the deafening roars of the crowd ring in the air, reverberating under the cantilevered roof; the samba drumming and firecrackers create the celebratory atmosphere that the Brazilians have such a gift for...
Even Sheira, who is no sports fan got totally caught up in the spirit of the moment, singing, chanting and waving her hands in the air with her new friends in the crowd. They went wild when one of the most famous Brazilian soccer players, Ronaldo took to the field. This is sacred ground, where all the local greats, from Romário de Souza to Sócrates have kicked the ball to glory…
Our great guide Marco Bransford suggested this as a side trip...
ITAPAVA in PETROPOLIS is a sleepy, hidden jewel with the best food in Brazil just outside Rio…
Here is his extra tip for visitors who a little more time than we did…
Travel 60 kms out of Rio to discover the Serra dos Órgãos hills as a great eco-alternative. Marco says the mountain air, picturesque valleys, side roads, plantations and markets will make for a magical stay.
Itaipava, a district of Petropolis, is considered the gastronomic centre of Brazil: its pubs, inns and restaurants are famous for their Brazilian cuisine.
Petropolis, or the “imperial city,” appealed to the Brazilian emperors and landed gentry as a peaceful, rural get away in Summer. Architecture buffs can visit the Summer Palace and neo-Gothic Cathedral of São Pedro de Alcântara.
Marco recommends taking a winding course that crosses several other villages, such as Madame Machado, Boa EsperanÃ§a and CuiabÃ. The steep scenic drive alone is worth a day trip, but there are high-end eco lodges in the mountains for those tempted to stop down, explore – and eat!