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Rio de Janeiro: the city of the decade

sunny 35 °C

There is a buzz in the air in Rio de Janeiro, anticipation of what lies ahead in the next few years, and it is infectious. In the next four years Rio will play host to the two largest sporting events in the world, the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016, and also World Youth Day in 2013. You can’t help but feel that the locals are a little smug about their city taking its place in the world spotlight, and as we discovered they have a lot to be smug about. Just this year UNESCO has granted Rio a world heritage site between the mountains and the sea calling it “an exceptional urban setting”.

This is what we thought we knew about Rio before we arrived – it is the home of the fabulous Carnivale, the city and surrounding favelas (shanty towns) are rife with reported gang and drug related violence and there is a big statue on a hill. What we found was an energetic and dynamic city, cariocas (Rio locals) with a passion for a healthy lifestyle and great food and even though English is far from widely spoken, everyone we came into contact with did their best to communicate with us. Like any city you need to be careful with your belongings and stay where the action is after dark, and wandering through a favela would not be recommended, but we never once felt unsafe in the beach district.

Very Brazil - bikinis for sale beachside!

Very Brazil - bikinis for sale beachside!

So many people ‘welcomed’ us to Rio, and indeed Brazil – like each individual took great pleasure and pride in the fact we had chosen to visit their city. Most welcoming was our Rio host Marcia, whose spare room in her apartment we called home for our city adventure. Booked through a B&B website, we ended up with a room just two blocks from Copacabana beach, breakfast laid out for us each morning, and our own local guide who advised us on things like where to eat, what time of day to visit certain areas and how to take the public transport and avoid taxis in tourist destinations. She was quick to tell us that Rio was not as dangerous as everyone made out and was keen for us to explore the city she calls home. After five days in the city we were navigating the streets and eating like locals, i.e. sitting down to dinner around 9.00pm.

Less than a five minute walk from our apartment we were standing on the famous Copacabana Beach. It’s a little bit dated, and lacks the polish of other international beachside destinations, but there is still an old world charm about Copa that makes you feel at ease. The entertainment along the beach can keep you occupied for hours, and even though the water is too cold for the majority of people to go in, the beach is packed all day every day.

Two icons - Copacabana beach with Sugarloaf in the distance

Two icons - Copacabana beach with Sugarloaf in the distance

Ipanema, made famous in the 60’s hit song Girl from Ipanema, is a glossier, younger version of Copa – the trendy little sister. Wandering the streets here you can see straight away it is the more modern of the two neighbourhoods – the restaurants are sleeker, the clothing stores more upmarket and our sunset cocktails by the lagoon were about 30% more expensive than around the headland in Copa.

Sundowners at Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon

Sundowners at Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon

There is no doubt that this is a city that needs to be viewed from above, and we were blessed with a clear afternoon as we jumped in the cable car to alight on Sugarloaf Mountain (Pão de Açúcar in Portuguese. You need to know this if you intend to catch the bus there!). Two cable cars take you to the summit of the mountain where you can look down on Copa, Ipanema and beyond, survey the Tijuca National Park and mountain range and if you are lucky see Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer, that big statue!) on his Corcovado mountain when the clouds break.

Sun goes down over Rio and its beautiful coastline

Sun goes down over Rio and its beautiful coastline

The buildings appear to flow around the base of the mountains like a river with the favelas clinging to the sides of the mountains above the city. It may be one of the only places in the world that the lower income residents get the better views out to the ocean. We timed our trip to the top perfectly as we got to see the city in full daylight and then snare a position to witness a gorgeous sunset. The cable cars run until 10pm so there is no need to sacrifice beach time during the day! So Brazil!

View over Copa from Sugarloaf

View over Copa from Sugarloaf

The other view that you simply must see whilst in town is from the base of Cristo atop Corcovado mountain. Be warned – it gets busy up there, so plan an early start. We were on the second train of the day at 9am and did not have to wait in line at all, but heaven help you if you arrive with a swarm of tourist buses during the day. On the bus trip through the city and on the train up the mountain skirting a favela it occurred to us that we were going to a lot of effort to simply see a statue, after all we had already seen the view from Sugarloaf and Egypt had already given us plenty of ‘large statue’ experiences. But this really is something else.

Climbing the stairs to the top

Climbing the stairs to the top

He (i.e. Cristo/Jesus!) is so lifelike, so formidable in height and position and yet like a guardian angel looking over the city. He is elusive too – in one second you have clear sky and no clouds and before you can find your next vantage point he has disappeared in a cloud. It was almost magical watching him, and mesmerising to watch the city and beaches below come in and out of view as the clouds moved around us.

The statue and its base are almost 40m in height - no wonder you can see it from everywhere!

The statue and its base are almost 40m in height - no wonder you can see it from everywhere!

Cristo - an icon of Brazil, not just Rio

Cristo - an icon of Brazil, not just Rio

One of our lasting impressions of Brazil, and specifically Rio, will be the music – it’s everywhere. A lone guitarist on the bus to Sugarloaf in the afternoon; a quartet of musicians on the train down from Corcovado in the morning; blaring from shopfronts on the street; from drink carts on the beach….. to be Brazilian is to have rhythm and the desire to dance seems to be genetic. There is always a sense of fun, like a party could break out at any minute. We can’t even imagine what the vibe would be like for Carnivale – it no doubt lives up to its reputation as the world’s best party and is on our bucket list.

Being December we were far too early for Carnivale but got to see the next best thing by attending a rehearsal of one of the local samba schools. What an experience! We were collected in Copa at 10pm and it took us two hours in Saturday night traffic to reach the suburb where the rehearsal was taking place (this is Rio, of course rehearsal didn’t start until 12.30am!). We were ushered into a hall the size of a plane hangar and our guide got us a few seats, told us to stay put and raced up to the stage to take his place in the band.

Words cannot describe the deafening noise we were subjected to for the next few hours, nor the speed with which the dancers could move – it was phenomenal. Unbeknown to us we happened to be there on the night when they were selecting the girl that would lead their float in the parade next year – like our own live version of Brazilian ‘So you think you can dance?’!! Six girls auditioned for the part with a guy who had already been selected, and it was at the end of the evening that he chose his girl. The reaction from Monalisa, her family and basically everyone in the hall was incredible – like she had just been crowned Miss Universe but better! It is obviously a huge honour to be selected for this position, we felt pretty lucky to watch the whole thing unfold.

Monalisa and partner will lead their samba school in the 2013 Carnivale parade!

Monalisa and partner will lead their samba school in the 2013 Carnivale parade!

Having just arrived from chilly Europe our focus was on the beach, and we didn’t even make it into the historical centre of the city nor did we visit any of the museums or galleries that all receive great reviews too. Frankly, we needed time out from beautifully preserved buildings and information overload – we just wanted to enjoy summer! The good thing about Rio being such a diverse city is that it will definitely be on our agenda again one day so we have left lots to uncover next time.

The 'Two Brothers' at the western end of Ipanema beach

The 'Two Brothers' at the western end of Ipanema beach

There is absolutely a lot of work to do in anticipation of the big events to come but from our experience the locals can’t wait to showcase their city and country on the world stage. It is an exciting period of growth for Rio, and the country, and we are looking forward to watching it all unfold. Rio is apparently the most visited city in the southern hemisphere, but will soon be hosting a lot more people!

Posted by 270days 13:57 Archived in Brazil

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