A September 2002 trip
to Rio de Janeiro by actonsteve
Quote: You will fall in love with Rio de Janeiro. The sapphire of the sky contrasts with the white of Copacabana beach, people dance to samba and the Sugarloaf overlooks everything.
This metropolis is alive and exciting, and must be the best city in South America...
You can lie under the blazing sun on a beach overlooked by towering green mountains. Mahoghany bodies chatter beside you with brown eyes, white teeth and healthy glows. Hawkers cries their wares, soft white sand lies underneath and the atlantic gently laps at your feet.
Am I in heaven? No - Rio de Janeiro.
Words cannot describe my love for the 'Cuidade Marvelosa'. It was a deep unconditional affair with what must be one of the most spectacular cities in the world. And to leave was almost physical in it's painfulness.
It slivers around the contours of Guanabara bay with the jungle covered peaks of the Tijuca NP as an awesome backdrop. It's beaches are world famous and the legendary Copacabana lives up to expectation with 4km of snow white sand. Bathed in year-round sunshine Rio positively glows and shines. It is the premier city in South America - South America's glittering star - and has a joie de voie that every other city must envy.The residents of Rio, the carioca's, know they live in paradise and spend every minute getting the best out of their city. And who can blame them? The city pulses with excitement with it's exotic nightclubs, colourful samba schools and the greatest show in the universe - the Rio carnival.
Rio de Janeiro is my favourite city in the world...
There the 'Cuidade Marvelosa' will be spread out in all it's glory in front of you. To the west and north will be the great mountainous jungle ridges of the Tijuca NP. Where the mountains reach the sea to the southwest is fashionable Ipanema. Another mountain blocks this from world famous Copacabana whose curve of sand reaches eastwards until it ends with the Sugarloaf mountain. This overlooks lovely Bortafago bay which arcs's onto the promontory where the city centre of Centro is situated. The entire coastline of the city of Rio de Janeiro stretches for 10km and squeezed between the sea and the mountains are over eight million people.
This creates diverse living conditions. For every sunkissed socialite on the beaches of Ipanema there is someone who lives in the favela (shanty town/slum). These are just as much part of Rio as samba and carnival and are now being drawn into the tourist mainstream. Crime is always a concern when visiting Rio but if you take the usual big city precautions your stay will be uneventful.
I would recommend that you use one of these taxis when you arrive at Galeao International airport. Several taxi companies at the arrivals lounge have set fares to Copacabana and Ipanema. These are pre-paid and the driver receives payment when he returns with your ticket after delivering you. Taxi firms Transcopass and Coopertramo all accept credit cards for their fares.
Best of all is the subway. This is a superb system costing only 1.50 reals for a journey. The stations are massive, the trains clean and punctual and the costs cheap. The only minus is that there is only two lines which bisect in Centro. They do go to Copacabana (Arcoverde stop) but not to Ipanema and Leblon, although there are plans to extend the line to Praca General Osorius which will mean it will only be a few steps from Ipanema and Aproador beaches.
Hotel | "Hotel Debret - location, location, location"
Step out of the door and a quick right takes you onto spiffy Avenida Atlantica. Cross the lanes of traffic and you can run your toes through the sands of the most famous beach in the world. If you are staying at Debret you can be up, swimming in the Atlantic or joining in with a game of volleyball all before you settle down to breakfast.
I cannot recommend this place enough. It is in the heart of Copacabana near the western Ipanema/Aproador end and overlooks the famous Avenida Atlantica and the beach. From it's 11th floor restaurant you can see the entire length of the half-moon beach with the Sugarloaf in the distance and you have easy access to some of the best nightlife in Brazil. But best of all, Debret does not cost more then £30/$45 a night.
It is smack in the middle of the action within walking distance of the famous 'HELP' discotheque (owned by football genius Ronaldo) and the nightlife of Copacabana and Ipanema. Built on the corner of Avenida Atlantica and Rua Feirrera which leads to the main street of Avenida NS Copacabana and on the main bus route to Centro. Every taxi driver in Rio knows it and it costs about 50 reals to reach Copacabana from the airport. Uniformed doormen stand guard and summon taxis or carry luggage for a small tip. Reception is manned by proffessionals and the lobby itself is pleasant with picture windows, leather armchairs and paintings of Rio.
The standard rooms are reasonable. They are of a good size with picture window (the more expensive rooms have views of Copacabana beach), air-conditioning, spacious bathroom, power-shower, fridge and huge bed. The fridge will be full of soft drinks and beers, and you will be tempted by the complimentary chocolates. These are not free and if you indulge then it will be added to your bill at the end of your stay. There is also a room safe for another 10 reals, it is best to take full advantage of this and securely lock your passport, money and camera away each day.
But the highlight for me was the restaurant on the 11th floor. Take the elevator to the 10th and then walk up one flight of stairs. Breakfast comes free with the price of the room and they lay on quite a spread. The choice will be ham, cheese, spicy sausage, cake, hot chocolate and fresh guava juice. But the best part is the view through the gigantic picture windows (see photo) where the whole spread of Copacabana beach is laid out below you for 4km. The green mountains dip into the sea and the rounded mound of the Sugarloaf dominates the horizon.
As you sip your coffee, a view like this reminds you why you were inspired to come to Rio in the first place.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on May 27, 2003
Avenida Atlantica 3564
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Hotel | "The Aproador Inn - one step to Ipanema beach"
And the irony is that I could and did stay there. This find was probably one of the highlights of my trip to Rio and is literally on the beach. It is situated on the Aproador headland which interjects between famous Copacabana and stylish Ipanema beach with expansive views of each for about £30/$45 a night. But the highlight is the restaurante - there you can sit sipping guava juice while the beach boardwalk is the other side of the window. A few yards away will be an open-air gym with men hoisting themselves up on the bars and kids pushing surfboards deep into the waves.
As for location, the Aproador Inn could not be better. Separating Copacabana from Ipanema is Rua Francisco Otaviano. This four laned racetrack carves through the exclusive area of Aproador with it's security guarded apartment blocks and palm trees. Leading off Francisco Otaviano is Rua Pompeia (close to 'Le Boy', see other journal) and NS Copacabana - the great four kilometre main street of that district. But it is the beach which is most important here - whichever one you choose you are bound not to be disappointed. At the Copacabana end is a real life fort, surf-shops and suco bars stand next to it, and every Saturday is a very pungent fishmarket.
The hotel itself is of sixties pastel architecture with glass doors leading to a central lobby. The deskstaff are multi-lingual, exceptionally friendly and thoroughly proffessional. Bellboys in smart uniforms will hail you a taxi or help you with your luggage for a small tip. There are 56 rooms running from the standard to the deluxe. All room shave private marble bathroom, refrigerator, airconditioning, TV with cable channels and safe deposit box. The bathroom in particular is impressive with marble tiling, power-shower and complimentary toiletries.
But the main draw is the restaurante. Underneath it's picture windows runs the boardwalk of Aproador beach. The great rocky headland will grab your attention as will the life moving up and down this most Brazilian of beaches. The restaurante itself contains an 'American bar' as well as a breakfast spread that is included in the price. You can gorge on coffee, chocolate, ham, eggs, spicy sausages, plus cake and mango. Then the best thing you could do is become Brazilian - all you need for the beach is speedo trunks, a towel and some suncream.
One thing while staying here is to climb the headlands. From the rocky heights (see photo) you have good views of the sweep of Copacabana to the east and the great expanse of Ipanema to the west. There is nothing quite like admiring the granite grained pitons at the Leblon end magnified by morning sunlight and watching Ipanema waking up for another day of pleasure.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on May 27, 2003
RUA FRANCISCO OTAVIANO 177
Rio De Janeiro, Brazil
Restaurant | "Carlito''s Grill - capirinha''s in the sunshine.."
Rio is a city of eight million. Most of these cannot afford to eat at the plush charrascaria''s (barbeque houses) or the restaurant''s of Ipanema or Barra di Tijuca. They tend to rely on bars/quilo restaurants which sell cheap Brazilian food such as bife (steak) and frango (chicken) served with rice and beans often not costing more then 10-15 reals. One of the few cheap places in Ipanema was Carlito's Grill. This was recommended to me by the doorman at the Aproador Inn who eats there after his morning shift finishes. Despite it''s prime location the major clientele for Carlito''s Grill are carioca''s. Many times I was the only foreigner there.
It does have a superb location. At the very corner of The main drag of Ipanema - Rua Visconda de Piraji, and Rua Farme Amedeo which leads straight to the beach. It''s counter bends with the corner and about twenty tables stand outside catching the Brazilian sun. You can have the option of a table or sit at the counter and watch the waiters hurry around like buzzing flies. Reservations aren''t necessary as it runs on a first come first served basis. I found it extraordinary relaxing and even in the cool evening it was a good place to watch the wealthy residents of Ipanema stream past me. One of the things I adore about Brazil is the mixture of races - some are pure white, some are jet black but most are something in between. Brazil may be the world''s best example of a melting pot.
And the food? Well, there is a western menu with frios (chips) burgers, chicken etc and a slightly more expensive seafood menu.But I always kept with their Brazilian menu. Snacks include empadinha which is a small pie with diced shrimp inside and coxinha which is chicken roled in dough and fried. Both are delicious sprinkled with tabasco sauce.
My favourite dish is fejoida which we have never got quite right when cooking it here in London. It is the national dish of Brazil and consists of a stew of pork, sausage and cured meat cooked with black beans and garlic. Served on a bed of rice and sprinkled with manioc flour this is a wonderful dish. At Carlito''s Grill a plate of steaming fejoida does not come to more then 15 reals.
corner of Visconde Piraji and Farme Amedeo
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Attraction | "Museu Contempora - Modern art in a flying saucer"
The truth is that Rio has a thriving arts scene. Writers and painters are drawn to this city and a wealthy middle-class means there is more income to spend on art then other cities. Contemporary art can be found in the galleries of Ipanema but also across the mighty Guanabara bay at the Museu de Arte Contemporanea in Niteroi. Niteroi is a kind of mini Rio with mountains, hotels and beaches facing it''s glittering sister across the immensity of the waters of Guanabara.
I told a Carioca friend that I had visited Niteroi and he laughed.
"The best thing about Niteroi is the ferry back to Rio..."
Cariocas don''t think much of the place and treat it like the dull brother. We visited on our way back to Rio on the SouthAmericaExperience bus (see Ilha Grande journel) and I kept thinking that I would like more time there. More manageable then the metropolis Niteroi boasts that much derided/envied "quality of life" argument where the rents are cheaper, the traffic less and the pace of life slower.
But Niteroi puts up a brave fight. . Niteroi is worth a days excursion and the ride on the ferry with the Rio skyline retreating and appearing is an amazing spectacle. Ferries are caught from Praca 15 Novembro in Centro Rio and take half an hour. These cost 0.50 reals and are used as commuter boats. The 741 bus from Copacabana also goes to Niteroi and crossing the gigantic Niteroi bridge.
It''s a very small place and dominated by it''s huge half moon beach. Concentrate on your suntan here and enjoy the views across the bay as the water is polluted. It is also refreshingly free of the hawkers that concentrate on Ipanema and Copacabana. But whever you are in Niteroi your eye will be drawn to a flying saucer perched on cliffs above the beach - this is the Museu de Art Contemporanea. Built on a sheer cliff above the beach the museum is stunning (see photo) and resembles a spaceship reached by art deco ramps and spirals. It has to be one of the most striking buildings in Brazil and was the brainchild of Oscar Niemeyer who was the man who designed Brasilia.
Since visiting the Tate Modern in London I''m rather partial to modern art. For two reals I wandered around the galleries which were worth the price of admission on their own for the views out of the window. The main gallery was a soft lighted oval affair with sculptures of surreal spiders. The upper gallery had picture windows and travelled the circumference of the flying saucer. Artworks on show included floor-art, maps made out of amusing Brazilian phrases (which the guide translated for me), paintings of bugs having sex and a cloak made entirely of cigarette ends. This smelled to high heaven.
Yes, but sweetie, what can I say? It''s art.....
Contemporary Art Museum (MAC)
Pria Da Boa Viagem
Attraction | "'Le Boy' - the best gay club in Brazil..."
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on May 27, 2003
Rua Raul Pompéia, 102 Copacabana
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 22080-000
+55 21 25134993
All your senses are invigorated as you fall in love with the most famous beach in Brazil. Everything you have heard about Copacabana is true. The striking blue sky contrasts with the deep blue of the Oceano Atlantico, the sand is sugar white and as soft as snow - kid's run in the surf, middle-aged men jog along it's length, hawkers cry their wares and backing it all are the Art Deco hotels and jungle covered mountains.
Copacabana is a golden corner of the world.
I suspect the sunworshipping Carioca's know how lucky they are. Imagine being brought up with this beach in the vicinity from the cradle to the grave? How many summers have the locals spent on the world's most famous beach? How many sunsets have they seen from the Copacabana boardwalk?
The people are absolutely gorgeous. Granted the profusion of all ages means abit of cellulite here and there - which I democratically approve of - but the real beach bums are spectacularly good looking. I was also surprised what a male beach it was. After work, you can see them climb out of their beachbuggies, strip down to their speedo's and take on their workmates for a game of futbol or softball on the sands. You can see why they head down from the impoverished Northeast of Brazil to live in the famous favela's (slums). They may not have electricity and running water but they have the sunshine and the beach is free. And crime? Rio has poured alot of money into security and I felt very safe. Cuidade Muncipal patrol cars growl up the Avenida Atlantica and there seemed to be lifeguards every fifty yards. I spent day after day lying back and enjoying the free show that they call beach life in Rio de Janeiro.
It also has to be one of the biggest beaches I have ever seen and stretches along a great half moon for 4 kilometres. At it's western end is Ipanema, this is separated from Copacabana by the Aproador headland which houses a military fort still in use. At it' s eastern end is the Morro de Babilonia, a jungle covered ridge of mountains which separates Copacabana from the Sugarloaf. Here Avenida Princess Isabella travels through a tunnel which connects Copacabana to Bortafago, Flamengo and the rest of Rio. The great road which travels the length of Copacabana is the Avenida Atlantica. The great multi-coloured Art Deco hotels of Rio line this avenida, each competing to be more extravagant with the other. Restaurants dot the Avenida Atlantica and at the Aproador end there is a night-market which is very impressive and sells T-shirts, plastic Christo Redentor's, beach towels, bikini's and souvenirs of Brazil.
Copacabana may attract tourists but they are outnumbered ten to one by the local carioca's. People spend their lives here and the population is a mixture of young and old. Copacabana had it's heyday in the forties/fifties and many of the population who moved in then are still here living in the five blocks between the beach and the mountains. The main drag is one block up from the beach - Avenida Nossa Sonora de Copacabana. This is workaday Rio catering to the local populace rather then the tourists and it is lined with supermercado's, farmacia's, restaurante's, banco's, churrascaria's (meat restaurant's) and suco bars (juice bars). Buses to Centro leave from here and return two blocks north along the east-west Rua Berata Ribeiro. The excellent subway ends at Arcoverde and is only two blocks south along Avenida Dante to the beach. Buses stop every fifty yards along Avenida Atlantica allowing you quick access to Centro, Flamengo and Ipanema.
But let's be honest, it is the beach you have come for.
It is quite a thrill to cross the four-lanes of traffic and set foot on it's famous sands. Before it is a boardwalk stretching the four kilometres along it's length. This Brazilian icon is a mosaic of black/white tiles (see photo) designed by Burl Marx and is constantly being travelled by men in speedo's, women walking dogs and joggers and cyclists. Interspersed along its length are barraca's (kiosks) which sell coco verts (green coconuts) and refreshments with a few plastic chairs and tables scattered around so you can soak up the sun. The first bit of sand I came to made me just sit down and watch a volleyball match on the white sand (see photo). One nutbrown guy must have spent his life on the beach and had such a washboard stomach it was criminal.
Then it is off with the shoes, shirt and on with the tanning oil, and a walk along the seashore with feet brushed by soft waves. The sand on Copacabana beach is very special. It is as white as new cream and so soft that your feet subtly sink into it's folds. All around me were Cariocas enjoying the first real sun of spring. Size did not matter as they squeezed themselves into speedo trunks or piano wire bikini's. Feeding off them were hawkers selling blankets, sun oil, chop beer, agua, prawns on skewers or whatever your heart desires. My advice to you is to take the bare minimum to Copacabana - just a couple of reals for provisions. Leave the valuable camera, wallet and passport back in the hotel room safe. You can buy whatever you need from the hawkers. Their cries ring the beach like medieval street-sellars.
Of course each part of the beach belongs to a different social group. The men generally hang around the Aproador western end where the volleyball courts are near the Aproador fort. Here, futbol fields are set up and there are gym bars and hoops. The trendy young things tend to stick to the middle in front of the Rio Othon hotel and the best bikini's and fashions are on display. Paulistas and those from the south of Brazil prefer the Leme end of Copacabana where they can walk to the Rio Sul Mall. And gay men have their own rainbow flag in front of the Copacabana Palace hotel. The Copacabana Palace really looms over Avenida Atlantica and is the most famous hotel in Rio. This hotel started the craze - flying down to Rio - in the thirties. This is also the best place to change up American express checks. The rumours that you have heard about the difficulty changing up 'exotic' currencies such as pounds, yen and Euro's in Rio are absolutely true.
But back at the beach I was stunned how fit and healthy Carioca's looked. And after a while you begin to notice the sensual nature of the beach - couples kissing in each others arms, one lad adjusting himself in front of his woman when coming out of the sea and bikini's so tiny that they seemed to vanish into the flesh. There is alot of flirting going on in Copacabana and gangs of girls watch the boys with many a backward glance being thrown. The beach can get very crowded in January/February and at new year over a million people dance on it's sands but the same time it is exceptionally friendly. If you lie there for any length of time then your neighbours will talk to you. Well, as well as they can - most Brazilians only speak Portuguese.
And what of the sea? The waves coming straight off the Atlantic were huge and not for swimming in. This is surfer territory and there are always a number of them bobbing in the water. As I watched them a feeling of adoration washed over me for Copacabana. With it's azure sky, white sand and deep blue of the sea - I thought it was the most beautiful beach I had ever seen.
And the Carioca's get to spend their lives here. Never before have I envied another peoples lifestyle - but this time I came so damn close...
To underestimate the importance of the Sugarloaf in the psyche of Carioca''s is to underestimate their same love for the beach. The Sugarloaf predates Rio and was there when the Portuguese sailed into Guanabara bay back in 1500. It dominates the horizon wherever you are in Rio. Whever you are speeding in a bus along Bortofago bay or lying on Copacabana beach - the streaked granite of this bishops mitre of a mountain will forever be in your sightline. The peninsula that it stands on is surrounded by mountains and jungle. Pristine beaches with white sands lie at it''s foot, sapphire waters lap against it sides and exclusive fazendas doze in it''s shadow in the wealthy enclaves of Urca and Bortofago. Like bee''s to honey - sooner or later you will be drawn to the Sugarloaf.
It takes a bit of planning to get to on your own. You can take a tour for 50 reals which will include a samba show and possibly a meal but this will only give you an hour to get up and down the mountain. And a taxi from Copacabana will cost about 10/15 reals. It is better to do it on your own and the Sugarloaf is in a military area so is very safe to visit. Buses from Copacabana and Ipanema (511/512) will drop you off at the cablecar station. But it is possible to walk from Copacabana beach. You have to start from the far eastern Leme end. At the end the wide road Rua Princessa Isabella leads up from the beach and through a tunnel bored through the granite mountains. Cariocas use this Tunel to get to the pricey Rio Sul Mall on the other side. This is an enjoyable Mall with plenty of clothes and jewellry shops and is so European that you might forget you are in South America. To the right of the Mall is Avenida Venislav Bras - walk east, past the Universit, to Avenida Pasteur. Pastel academic buildings, tour buses and armed guards line this Avenida which ends in a beautiful placa . And you will finally see the granite monoliths of the two mountains soaring like giants into the sky. Above you gondolas swing down on creaking cables and the praca (square) is bordered by the golden sands of a tiny beach with glittering blue water.
The Sugarloaf consists of two mountains. The first is the smaller, though still enormous, Morro de Urca whose summit passengers disembark from the gondolas and catch another one to the higher peak - the Pao de Acucar. This is the more famous,spectacular peak and I''m told the entire journey takes about two hours including gawping time. One of Rio''s great icons is the gondola/cablecar which has been refurbished in 2002. The view of these glass and steel capsules creaking up the mountain above is one of the great sights of Rio de Janeiro. (see photo)
The cablecar station hides under the mass of the Morro de Babilonia, a colossal mountain range that separates Bortofago from the famous beaches of Copacabana. The station itself has been renovated and can only be described as spiffy - clean glass and metal draped with jungle vegetation. Full journey back and forth on the cablecar costs 24 reals (£6/$8) and after paying the man in the kiosk you ascend the ramp to the disembarkation area. My visit coincided with a hundred excited Brazilian schoolchildren who crowded the platform and waited for the gondola to descend. I was originally going to wait for the next one but excitement got the better of me - and I jumped into the capsule. The doors slammed, the kids squeaked and we were whisked upwards.
Your immediate concern as you ascend is the wobbling capsule. But moving below was the green and grey of the Morro de Babilonia with buildings gracing it''s slopes but more transfixing was the beach. Fringed by granite outcrops, the water looked azure as it washed up on the golden sand. Before I could get a good look we banged into the first cable-car station and the schoolchildren disembarked in droves and sprinted for the second cable car station at the rear of the summit. I had the summit of the Morro de Urca nearly to myself and nonchantly walked to the edge......and saw one of the best views in the world. (see photo''s)
Rio de Janeiro was laid out like an artists watercolour in the sunshine. To the west was the Morro di Babilonia. It''s bulky green spine hiding the favela which takes it''s name. This was the range of jungle mountains which kept colonial expansion in Rio to a minimum until the building of the Babilonia Tunel. And beyond it was Copacabana in all it''s glamorous glory with it''s 4km white sands and it''s art deco hotels visible at this distance. Even the dual summits of the mountain at the end of Ipanema could be seen. East of the Morro de Babilonia mountain range was the residential district of Bortafago, squeezing this area in their enclosing folds were Rio''s truly monster mountains - the Tijuca National Park. Over 100km of mountain and tropical rainforest within the city limits. They looked like a great rolling emerald menace trying to push the city into the sea. The most prominent of all was the green spike of the Corcovado. Even from this distance you could see the statue of Christ with arms extended as if to dive off his lofty perch.
But the city was hanging grimly on in the face of all this encroaching vegetation. A thousand yachts were moored in Bortafago harbour and nudged onto it''s golden beach. The highway lined coastline buzzed with cars and buses as it swept past the districts of Flamengo and Gloria before climaxing in the skyscrapers of Centro. Way to the north, past the favelas near Centro, was where Guanabara bay turned into a thousand islands. Arced across these waters was the Niteroi bridge - not so long ago the longest bridge in the world. And even 500ft beneath us were sunwashed islands hardly inhabited by anyone. The tiny neighbourhood of Urca directly below me looked apetising with it''s tiny beach and rocky headlands. If I could choose anywhere to live in Rio it would probably be there.
At the back of the Morro is the cablecar station taking you up to the peak of the Pao de Acucar. It''s huge bulk dominates your vision as you wait for a capsule to swing down from it''s summit. Between it and the Morro de Urca is pristine jungle. If the cable snapped there would be no soft seawater to break our fall but a hard carpet of vegetation far below. But I was too entranced by the views to worry about that and it was with regret that we bumped into the cablecar station - once again I was ill-prepared for the view from the very top.
To start with the Sugarloaf is perfectly positioned at the mouth of Guanabara bay. From here you can see hundreds of the jungly islands that dot the bay. Centro looks more spectacular from here and there are planes taking off from tiny Santos Dumont airport. Ships look like miniatures from this height and on the other side of the bay is Niteroi - a kind of mini Rio with its own islands, mountains and beaches. The view directly down is terrifying with golden marmosets bounding across the granite surface like fleas and kites wheeling far below. There is not much else on the summit except excitable Brazilian schoolchildren, telescopes, a small restaurant and a souvenir shop. But every tourist laps up the views and has his or her photo taken against the rails. You will only be here once.
It was his composition "The girl from Ipanema" that put this beach on the worldwide map and every visitor to Rio has to visit. Supposedly, he coined the words and tune from senora''s wandering past his seat at a beachfront cafe. The tune is just as applicable today as the beautiful people come to shop, eat or be admired in one of Rio''s most spectacular beaches.
If Ipanema had comparisons with other cities then it would be with Beverley Hills or Hampstead. This is the abode of filmstars, footballers and millionaires with some of the property the most expensive in Brazil and it''s main drag Rua Visconda Piraji is the chicest shopping street in Rio. While Copacabana has aged with it''s population with flashes of madness in summer or new year, Ipanema is still classy and stylish as it was in the 40''s, and is many Carioca''s neighbourhood of choice.
It is a long way from Centro Rio. Buses 119, 154, 413, 415, 455 zoom through Copacabana to get to Ipanema from Centro. If you see the word ''Aterro'' at the front of a bus this means express - not stopping between the beginning and end of it''s destination. The fare from Centro will only cost 0.40 reals. The subway is due to be extended to Ipanema and it''s termination at Placa General Osorious is still being completed. The nearest metro station is 2km away in Copacabana, buses run west from Arcoverde all the way to Leblon and beyond to the Barra di Tijuca. But it is the geography of Ipanema which is the most impressive. The beach ends after three miles at the vast mountains that squeeze Rio. Most prominent is the Morro de Rochina (Rochina mountain) which is a gigantic granite piton with it''s capped by twin peaks. In it''s shadow is the Rochina favela, the largest slum in South America, with a superb view over the ocean. The juxtaposition of extreme wealth and extreme poverty is the epitome of Rio de Janeiro.
You will probably begin your exploration from the eastern Copacabana end. Good starting points are the Aproador beach or the Praca General Osorious. The Praca is a pretty green square where buses terminate and is surrounded by bars and restaurante''s. Leading off it is Rua Visconda Piraji to the west and all roads lead to the beach to the south. On Sundays there is the Feira Hippie (hippy market) which is a touristy market with plenty of T-shirts, jewellry and stuffed bird-eating spiders. The beach itself is lined not so much by hotels but by apartment blocks. This is the district for the wealthy and each has high-security in the form of watchful guards stationed outside. You will notice the affluence while in Ipanema - old ladies with poodles and sunglasses, sports cars purr up and down the boardwalk and expensive beachwear is on show everywhere.
But the beach will draw you in. The city of Rio takes great care of it''s beaches - and they are absolutely spotless. Early in the morning you can see cleaners out in force and there are rubbish bins every thirty yards. When you walk along the shoreline on the snow white sands you can feel all stress drop away from you. The tanned gods that are called Carioca''s moved around you - joggers overtake, women spread towels on the beach and middleaged men with speedos far to tiny for their applicable age start games of volleyball. They have lifeguard stations which double as toilets/showers every thirty yards and each stretch of the beach is numbered and appeals to a particular section of the population. Interllectuals and artists head for the area near the Jardim de Allah, families make for the gentler Aproador end and gays spread their towels around Farme Amedeo.
One trick the Carioca''s have perfected on the beach is not to face the ocean, but to lie towards the city to catch the suns rays. This makes sense as the way Rio is positioned when you face the sea only your head and shoulders catch the sun. As you relax you will be bothered by hawkers selling sunglasses, beers or fake jewellry. In fact you need the bare minimum at the beach, everything you need is on sale. Of course it is one of the best places for people-watching - the mohaghany couple next to you may be making up after a tiff the night before, old men sip coco verts (green coconuts) while watching youths kick footballs around the sand. They must be remembering that it was them doing exactly the same forty years ago.
If you visit Ipanema then try and make time for Rua Visconda Piraji which is one block north of the beach. This is exclusive Rio with it''s bars, fashion stores, boutiques, gyms and travel agents. From here you can pick up a cheap excursion to Iguacu Falls or up to the Amazon and there are plenty of bargains advertised. But Ipanema is primarily a residential area and you will see the well-heeled shop, eat and flirt all day long. It''s just the same at night. They floodlight the beaches so games of futbol go on all night and the surf looks luminescent in the darkness.
But most magical is the view from the boardwalk towards the Morro do Rochina and it''s favela. As there is no electricity the inhabitants use lanterns. The whole favela shimmers and twinkles in the darkness.
Probably a vista of miles and miles of steaming jungle broken only by meandering brown rivers and the cries of monkeys. Maybe Carnival? Maybe football? Maybe gigantic waterfalls..? But nine times out of ten the image flashing in your minds eye will be of the Chriso Redentor perched on it''s pinnacle high above Rio....
This is a sight worth crossing continents to see. This is the great icon and symbol of the ''Cuidade Marvelosa''. As famous as the Acropolis is to Athens or the Golden Gate to San Francisco. The sight of it floating majestically above the city is one that every visitor to Rio never forgets, and every visitor makes the pilgrimage to it''s summit for the kind of views of Rio that only god enjoys. The backdrop of the green mountains really enhance the experience and it is especially beautiful lit up at night when it seems suspended ethereally over the city with it''s arms outstretched.
The best advice I can give you is to go on a clear day. Take a look at the heavens before you set off so that when you reach the summit you are not staring at billowing cloud and not much else. Take a break from sunbathing on Ipanema to view what is many peoples favourite sight in Rio. It is, surprisingly, a long way form the beaches of the Zona Sul in the little outpost of Cosme Velho to the east of the Lagoa dei Freitas (see other journal). This little district borders the mountainous jungle of the Tijuca NP and still retains some colonial architecture but it''s main claim to fame is the starting point of the train to the summit of the Corcovado (hunchbank mountain). To get there either take a taxi (15 reals from Copacabana or Ipanema) or catch the 180/184 bus from Copacabana to Cosme Velho. You can actually walk to the summit of the Corcovado but this is a vertiginous climb taking about 2 hours but it takes you through some of the most undisturbed virgin jungle around Rio.
But the best way is the dinky red tram that leaves every twenty minutes from Cosme Velho. This costs 20 reals and is deservedly popular. The Corcovado itself is 710m high and is like a stark green-clad finger pointing into the sky. The ascent to the top is at a steep angle and the tram climbs at an angle of ninety degrees. This means that the floor is at a slope so anything like a dropped camera slides all the way to the back of the tram. It also stops at tiny stations in the jungle where people get on and off. Imagine living up here and having to take the tram every day. But the views when not obscured by jungle are spectacular and the tram takes half an hour to traverse the 3.8km of tracks. It only travels at 15 kmh which gives plenty of time for lots of oohhing and aahhing.
The most memorable view may be when you get to see the Lagoa de Freitas hundreds of feet below. When you see this then you know that you are approaching the summit. Once you do arrive most people sprint up the twenty or so steps to the actual statue but it is worth taking a look at the viewpoint to the rear of the mountain (see photo). The heart shaped lake was as smooth as silk from 710m up and surrounded by the rolling creases of the Tijuca NP. Ipanema could be seen from here but Copacabana was hidden by the streaked granite mountain of the Morro dos Cabritos. Lagoa''s Jockey club could be seen on the west side of the lake and the Jardim Botanico creeps up the dark green mountain.
And then a few steps take you to the rear of the statue. It stands 38m high with it''s arms outstretched like a high board diver or clapping for it''s favourite samba band. Around the front you can actually see it''s features (see photo) and it is very Art Deco with a beard and face of long straight lines. Massive arclights stand nearby to illuminate it at night and it''s religious significance is still observed with a chapel at the rear that is used for mass each sunday. But most people are here for the view and the concrete viewing platform that extends over the lip of the summit. It is on two levels and is usually filled with a glut of tourists posing with their arms outstretched on the steps (see photo). But prime viewing position is at the very tip of the viewing platform where they line their cameras up for one of the best views in the world.
I will do my best to put it into words...
Rio de Janeiro is spread out like a rolling carpet. To the south is Lagoa de Freitas and Ipanema beach blocked in by green mountains. Surrounding the Lagoa were a million or so houses, some inching up the mountain but most laid flat between the mountains and the sea. Copacabana itself could just about be seen but was blocked from the rest of the city by a chain of small green mountains. You could just about see the high-rise hotels on the beach and the islands in Guanabara bay. I thought It was like a great hand had scrunched up the world. To the far west was the inversed rugby ball shape of the Sugar Loaf standing proudly by Bortofago bay. This inlet was scattered with yachts and boats, and visible was the great curve where motorways arc between Flamengo and Catete. Finally, at the sharpest point of the city is the skyscraper downtown of Centro with the modernist pyramid of the Cathedral Nuovo. Between this and the slopes of the Tijuca NP is the hilly neighbourhood of Santa Teresa and most prominent of all is the gargantuan Maracana stadium - the largest stadium in the world. Guanabara bay is the backdrop for the city with great vessels moving along it''s coast and strings of islands which looked like pebbles from this point. And away in the distance is Rio''s twin sister, Niteroi - which glittered in the sunlight.
Cariocas claim that god created Rio. He may well have done but his son in the guise of the Chriso Redentor still looks gamely on from his perch. It keeps a wary eye on the great spread of Rio, and every visitor tries to guess what it is thinking about as he gazes at the city of sun, sin and samba laid out beneath him.
I got the chance to see this for myself as I strolled around one of the most beautiful parts of Rio - the Lagoa Rodrigo dei Freitas. At the southwest corner of the lake was a political rally. About 100 people blew whistles and waved white and blue flags. They jumped and danced around to the beat of drums and there was an air of a festival. One woman grabbed my hand, shouted something excitedly about "Da Silva!" and tried to drag me along with the show.
Da Silva was of course the centre-left candidate who got elected this year. From my Brazilian friends here in London I know that the country elected it''s first left wing President in twenty years. But what made me laugh is that the party workers had choosen to hold their rally in probaly the most conservative, wealthy and bourgeois part of Rio de Janeiro - the Lagoa de Freitas.
This huge saltwater lake is behind Ipanema and Leblon beaches. It lies in an epic bowl surrounded by the jungle covered mountains of the Tijuca NP. The Christo Redentor statue looks like a little fly speck at the top of one of these mountains and is stunning reflected in the calm waters of the lake (see below photo). The lake is about 7.5 km in circumference and provides a bracing walk after the heat of Ipanema beach or the shopping down Rua Visconda Piraji. Its shores are lined with jogging tracks, tennis courts, restaurants, sports clubs and samba schools. When you take a taxi from Centro or the airport and head for your beach accommodation in Ipanema or Copacabana nine times out of ten you will pass the Lagoa de Freitas and marvel at the scenery.
The scenery is the main attraction. There are plenty of ways to enjoy it including hiring pleasure craft on the lake. But most stroll or jog along the 7.5km circumference via a palm tree lined pathway. From here the mountains that surround Rio look exceptionally close, and a great undulating vegetation covered ridges will block your sight north, east and west (see photo). As the mountains finish the city begins and the exclusive villas of the wealthy dot the hillside with views over the Lagoa and Ipanema. The wealthy frequent the sports clubs which dot the lake with the most famous being the jockey club whose immaculately kept racetrack dominates the western side. Bus 592 departs from outside and the managers do not mind you wandering in and having a look around so long as you buy a drink.
In fact part of the fun of this walk is watching the Cariocas. They don''t get as many tourists as Copacabana and are more natural. Families will spread themselves out on the park, old people will ask you if you want your photo taken up against the mountains and everyone is more relaxed and friendly then in Centro Rio. If you can make sure the end of your wandering is the Parque Tom Jobim (named after Rio''s famous samba composer) where they hold a small hippy fair on a Sunday. It is cordoned of for rollarbladers, joggers and families who have huge boomboxes blaring ''Bossa Nova'' across the lake.
If you make it this far then you must have a wander around Leblon. The streets around here are lined with moneyed apartment blocks and grass verges which look like botanical gardens. At the western end is the Morro de San Conrado (San Conrado mountain) which separates Leblon from Barra di Tijuca. The most famous feature of this mountain is the Rochina favela (slum) which clings to the mountainside like an ants nest. Past this is the mega-wealthy area of Barra di Tijuca with it''s condo''s, super-apartment blocks and more millionaires. I was shown around by a friend who works there and it consists of shopping malls, sports car showrooms and exclusive restaurants. It is Brazil''s equivalent of Palm Beach. Ronaldo and half the Brazilian football team live there in luxury.
Many tourist hotels are situated there and their huge complexes, to my surprise, backed onto the Rochina favela. I spoke with two tourists who said they could watch favela-dwellers trudge to work from their sunbeds. How dare the poor of Rio interrupt their cocktails by the pool....how inconsiderate can you get?
It was at the bookmarket on Largo di Carioca and was a biography under the title "great leaders" (stop laughing at the back...) and was amassed with hundreds of portuguese language paperbacks. Perhaps it was put there to annoy visiting Argentineans. I wouldn''t put anything past the cariocas.
But the bookmarket on Largo di Carioca is one of the hidden gems of Centro Rio. The city centre/downtown of the ''Cuidade Marvelosa'' is a really buzzing place and worth an afternoons excursion. Crowds of peope rush around it''s narrow cobbled streets and the architecture is a real mix of the old and the new. Towering skyscrapers on the Rio Branca contrast with baroque churches, portuguese colonial buildings share the same block with office''s and shopping malls in a sort of Brazilian Manhattan. But this IS Rio. A part of the working day-to-day Rio that visitors rarely see unless they make the effort to haul themselves off Copacabana beach. One must-see draw is the colonial Candalaria church which could fit in very nicely with the great baroque cathedrals of Europe.
It''s also the oldest part of this city and dates from 1527. The original Portuguese colony started in Urca in the shadow of the Sugarloaf, but was moved to the higher ground where it is today. Centro is caught between the port (which is still in use) and the mountains. To the north are some of the worst favela''s in Rio, to the west is the bohemian area of Santa Teresa, to the east Guanabara bay and to the south is the beginning of the beaches. In fact the nearest beach is Flamengo about twenty minutes walk from the centre. If you take a bus from Copacabana or Ipanema you will whoosh past this beach which is often far less crowded then it''s more famous sisters.
There are plenty of ways to get there. From Copacabana/Ipanema the best way is the bus. Buses arrive every two minutes at the bus stops along Avenida NS Copacabana and Rua Visconde Piraji and have the decal ''CENTRO'' above their windscreens. The ''Aterro'' versions are non-stop. Pay your money and sit back as it will rocket to Centro usually depositing you at Praca 15 Novembro (which is covered in another journal). To catch a bus back to the Zona Sul the best place is Avenida Vargas just behind the Candalaria church, buses run as far as the Barra di Tijuca from here. But the best way to get to Centro is via the high-tech subway.Urganiania, Cinelandia and Carioca are the three subway stations in the centre and Arcoverde is the nearest subway station to the Zona Sul.
The Largo di Carioca (Carioca Square) is a good place to start and as you emerge from the subway the bookmarket is worth a ponder. There are over twenty stalls (see below photo) with a thousand paperbacks. Sandwich boardmen on stilts stride by, the crowds bustle and office workers escape it all by dipping into Carlos Menado for twenty minutes. East of here is the Rua Assembleia which takes you to the mighty Rio Branco but it is worth stepping west for a few minutes. Along Rua Chile is a giant wigwam made of glass - this is the modernist Nova Cathedral. It looks like nothing more then a giant Mayan pyramid made of shards of glass. This immense structure reaches into the air and has a base of 100ft in circumference. This is Rio''s hat-tip to the modern architecture of Oscar Niemeyer so evident in Sao Paulo and Brasilia.
Even more entertaining is the ''bondinho'' (tram-car). The terminus is on the vast concrete Praca Floriano and these battered tramcars climb Rio''s hills fifty times a day. They cost 0.50 reals to clank up to Santa Teresa and I was entertained by the boys hanging off the side. There were more people hanging off the tramcar then in the car itself. The guidebooks urge you to use caution when using the ''bondinho'' but I noticed a policeman riding with the tram and on croded days it may be advisable to sit near him. This is a Rio experience I will save when I come back to the city. Rio Branco disects Praca Floriano and heads north, this massive avenida is the equivalent of Oxford Steet or Fifth Avenue and is always bursting with people who won''t pay any attention to tourists as they rush about their business. There are plenty of vendors along Branco selling grilled meats and prawns, flowers and beachwear.
At the end of Rio Branco is a truly magnificent boulevard - the Avenida Vargas. It was named after the Brazilian dictator of the eighties but at the eastern end marooned amongst all the swirling traffic is the Igreja de Nossa Candalaria (Candalaria church). This church is an expression of baroque and one of the few remains of that age left in Rio. Open each day it is worth a wander and stepping into the nave gives that sense of awe great cathedrals have. In fact the nave was colossal and reminded me of a miniature St Peters or St Pauls complete with frescoed dome and marble column''s. Wooden pews faced a silver altar carved with marble angels. Statues adorn the side-chapels and the echo as I moved around this deserted church became obtrusive in such a cavenous space. This truly is an exceptional church and provided me with my fix of old-worlde culture in Brazil.
But there is a darker side to the church. I found out when I got home that around the back of the church was where they used to shoot street-children in the eighties. A policy formatted after complaints from tourists. We sometimes have alot to answer for.
The television news was full of dramatic stories of hideous crimes and travellers around the world were advised to keep away from this city of sin south of the equator.
I am now going to say something controversial.
"I went to Rio de Janeiro and NOTHING HAPPENED TO ME!!!"
Shock! Horror! Someone goes to Rio and doesn''t come back with a gratuitous tale of a robbery or mugging. Hard to believe eh? I fact, I will go further and say that I never felt unsafe as I was wandering around and was impressed by how well policed Copacabana was and will go as far as to say that this city is one of the most underrated in the world. Perhaps that is what the Carioca''s want - the tourists scared away so they have this beautiful city to themselves.
All is not sweetness and light. Let''s be honest, the crime rate is exceptionally high here. Although the Brazilians are quick to point out that it is on a par with America''s it is advisable to watch your step. However, if you take the same precautions as you would visiting any big city and don''t wave expensive watches or camera''s around then you should be fine. It would be a shame to miss out on Rio de Janeiro. Be savvy, be aware of your surroundings and don''t take unneccessary risks. Whatever you do don''t let paranoia ruin your stay.
The trick is to blend in. carioca''s will immediately spot a foreigner by the way they dress. If you adopt their dress i.e. shorts, speedo''s and thongs/flip-flops the odds for being noticed go immediately down. The social point of the city are it''s amazing beaches and just like any other beach it is best to leave valuables back in the hotel. You wouldn''t leave your watch at the Trevi fountain or your wallet on Trafalgar Square and then expect to go back to it after ten minutes would you? The same with the beaches, in fact you need very little when visiting the beaches just bathing costume, towel and a few reals. Hawkers sell drinks, suncream and food all day on the beaches. And those sweeping pictures of Copacabana beach can be taken when you go back to your hotel. If you can keep all valuables in the safe in your room then do so. It pays to be sensible in this city.
Back in 1992 the earth summit was held in Rio de Janeiro and Brazil got a nasty shock. Camera crews from all around the world concentrated on the high crime and the favela''s rather then what the government was doing to save the planet. Something had to be done and they poured much money into the policing of Copacabana and you will find policeman situated every fifty yards. The police drive little buggies up and down the beach and take special care of foreign tourists. The prospect of a tourist killed in Copacabana will bring unwelcome headlines around the world and is a thing that the authorities are keen to avoid. I felt absolutely no menace as I strolled along the Avenida Atlantica and was wandering around Copacabana at 3.00am in the morning. The boardwalks and beaches are floodlit at night and barraca''s stay open very late. But I still wouldn''t advise any moonlight skinnydipping, I did hear of three English lads who went swimming on Copacabana and when they came out there were teenage muggers waiting for them. But they did do it at four in the morning which is almost asking for trouble.
Cariocas themselves will tell you where to go and not to go. Most of Rio is fine, especially the beaches, but keep away from the Tunel''s and the favelas which cling to the mountainsides. While I was there one of the my friends was tut-tutting over pictures in ''El Globo'' newspaper of the army combing the Rochina favela. A particularly tenacious journalist made himself a nuisance to a drug lord who is holed up in this enormous slum. The drug lord caught him and "micro-waved" him (set about him with a blow-torch) and burnt parts of his body were found all over the favela. The government was so angry at this that it sent the army in to comb this city of shacks and alleys - and they eventually caught him. Brazil has a long way to go on the crime front, but the will is there to move it in the right direction.
Reading this you may think Rio is one bandit-ridden out-of-control metropolis. Nothing can be further from the truth. It is just like any other big city and if you keep an eye open and don''t do stupid things then you will have a fantastic time in Rio. In fact they are trying to draw the favela''s and underclass of Rio into the tourist industry. Tours of the Vila Canoas favela and the massive Rochina favela are now available (www. favelatour.com.br) and I think they are just as much a part of Rio as the Corcovado or Ipanema. On the bus tour I was on we did visit the Rochina favela on our way to Ilha Grande. This is the biggest slum in South America and currently has 180,000 residents. Although we didn''t go in too far I thought the place was spectacular and reminded me of an enormous adobe town stretching up the mountains (see photo). The houses were built one on top of another until they crept exonerably up and the mountain bristled with washing-lines and TV aerials. Those at the bottom sell their roofspace to to those who want to buid new houses and the whole favela looked so fragile that it would collapse after a gust of wind. It did, however, have it''s own shops, schools and a vast market - almost a city within a city.
I did feel one hell of a voyeur. As we wandered around the favela I felt as if I was intruding. As we passed people in the street they said hello but just how politically correct is it to visit a favela? How would I like it if a tourbus parked outside my flat in West London and tourists clicked shutters and gawped. After all this is a home to many people. The other side is of course that they welcome tourists as an acceptance into the mainstream of Rio. They get good publicity rather then the damaging reputation of a drug-gang dangerzone. Whatever the ethics of visiting a favela I found it one of the most interesting parts of my trip to Brazil. But take a tour, don''t go there on your own. Incidently, there is a reason to envy the favela residents - they often have the best views in Rio for a fraction of the real estate costs.
You may be worried about coming to Rio because of the crime. I''ll not deny it goes on, but most visitors to this amazing city have an uneventful time. There are things to watch out for but common sense and the usual big city precautions usually negate these. The Rio authorities are keen to dispel it''s image and the pro''s to Rio far outweigh the con''s. The authorities are keen to look after you and go out of their way for foreign tourists. They are very proud of their city and want to show it off...and once you have been there and see it...you can understand why...
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