A July 2004 trip
to Rio de Janeiro by actonsteve
Quote: There is a shiver of electricity about this city, whether it's the snow-white beaches, the beat of samba, the jungle-covered mountains, or the mix of rich and poor. This is a city which enters your bloodstream and brings you back, eager for more.
I can't think of a city in the world I have raced back to as quickly and eagerly as Rio de Janeiro...
Since I visited in 2002, I've been counting days until I could return, and while I was there, I savoured every moment. It cast a spell over me, and I know that however many times I visit it will still not be enough.
What’s the attraction? Well, it must be the most spectacular set city on the planet. Towering, jungle-covered mountains hit the sea at Guanabara Bay and break into hundreds of little islands. Beaches the colour of cream stretch for kilometers, basking in a tropical sun a few degrees north of the Tropic of Capricorn. The soaring granite pitons of the forest-covered Tijuca NP surround the city like a green fortress. The peaks are topped off with the Christo Redentor, with his arms outstretched. Cariocas say "on the eighth day, after he created the world....he took pleasure in creating Rio..."
And then there is the hedonism of the beaches: Cariocas racing down to the waterline in their speedos, barracas selling coco verts, little brown heads bobbing in the surf clutching boards. Cariocas live for the beach, and this is where the entire city comes together. Happiness is strolling the Burle Marx tiled promenade at Copacabana. I can guarantee you will do this again and again.
Rio is one of those cities that stays with you for a very long time. The memories will last forever -- the sound of the creaking tram as it climbs the hills of Santa Theresa, the Gregorian chants in the Cathedral Metropolitana, breadfruit ripening on the Claudio Coutinhotrail with waves crashing below, the sharp tang of the caipirinha, and samba, drums, and election banners holding up traffic. But most of all, it’s the laughter and zest for life of the Cariocas, and that feeling of sun on your body as you slowly toast on the magnificent beaches.
Rio is one of those cities where you discover new things every time you visit.
This holiday allowed me to stretch my horizons, with visits to the exquisite botanical garden, the clanking Santa Theresa tram, and an emotional visit to the Maracana stadium. You will spend most of your time in Copacabana and Ipanema. The general buzz seems to be that Ipanema has been cleaned up now -- it is even safe to walk alone at night. Rio seems to be concentrating its tourist police in the busy parts of Centro, which may explain why the hawkers and street kids are back along Avenida Atlantica. They know the tourists hang out at the restaurants at Copacabana. If you want to eat unmolested, just retreat one block inland to NS Copacabana, where the range of restaurants is much more varied and cheaper.
The best place to change money in Rio is the American Express at the Copacabana Palace Hotel. This famous hotel is one block south of Sequeiro Campos and is an enormous white confection facing the Atlantic Ocean. All the art-deco hotels facing Copacabana Beach are impressive, and the Zona Sul is probably the best place to stay in Rio.
Whenever I go to Rio, they open a new METRO station.
The new one is Sequiero Campos, halfway along Copacabana. There are plans to run the METRO station as far as Leblon, with stations in Gavea, and in the next few years, there will be stations in Ipanema and Copacabana -- the station Cantaglio will be in between the pair of districts.
Taxis from Galeao International Airport cost 60 reals, but you may use the smaller Santos Dumont, just south of Centro, for flights internally in Brazil. The commuter route to Sao Paolo starts from here and only takes 45 minutes (usually full of middle-aged computer salesmen). And as you take off, try and get a window seat on the right. Santos Dumont juts into Bortofago Bay, and there are a few feet separating the runway from the ocean. The plane banks on take-off, and you get an amazing view of the Sugarloaf Peak -- it was so close, I felt I could reach out and touch it. And the great white/sapphire arc of Copacabana Beach looks like a picture postcard from the air.
Hotel | "Ipanema Inn -- Living the soap opera life"
My favourite was Destino, set in some fashionable suburb of Sao Paolo. This truly was trash telly. There was one scene I will never forget, as it made me laugh so much. An over-made-up diva is being harassed by an evil, blackmailing neighbour (you can tell she is evil by the way she flicks her hair). So wicked is the blackmailer that you can tell the diva is thinking of killing her. Her eyes flick obviously to a pair of scissors nearby. Then the tension is broken by the doorbell ringing, and the diva laughs it off. I, on the other hand, erupted into gales of hysterical laughter. Oh well [lets out sigh]..back to the hotel....
Its location is probably its main selling point. It boasts of being 50 meters from the actual beach, and the palm-lined street where it is situated, Rua Maria Quiteria, is exceptionally wealthy and houses some very expensive restaurants. The whole area is well-lit, and security men watching in the nearby apartment blocks endorse the safe feeling of Ipanema.
Reception is impressive -- a cacophony of marble, glass, and chrome. The desk staff is very helpful and happy to use their English. Luggage storage is available, and tours of the city can be booked for a reasonable price. A lounge area with easy chairs is in reception, as is a small café. Most prominent, and looking out onto the road, is a tourist shop selling indigenous carvings and bric-a-brac. Breakfast is served in a large restaurant area and consists of rolls, sausage, eggs, fruit, melon, and guava juice. Concierge service is available, and parking facilities are very close to the hotel.
There are 56 rooms, starting from single standard occupancy (60 reals) to first-class deluxe (400 reals), with balconies overlooking Rua Maria Quiteria. The rooms were very clean and air-conditioned, with refrigerator, cable TV, and a safe deposit box (I suggest you take advantage of this). The bathrooms were clean and airy, with lots of mirrors and a terrific power shower. Complimentary soap was available, and those cans of guarani and brahma beer in the refrigerator are not free. Their consumption will be added to your final bill.
All in all, it’s a good, comfortable, and safe place to come back to after a day in Rio. With the amenities of Ipanema at one end of the road and the beach at the other, you will be enjoying the glam life of the Zona Sul. You can be involved in your very own telenova.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on November 13, 2004
RUA MARIA QUITERIA 27
Rio De Janeiro, Brazil 22410-001
Hotel | "Residencia Apts - Budget flats near the beach"
They must start at a very young age. Everyone, and I do mean everyone, drives like the possessed as they take the corners in Rio de Janeiro. Rua Francisco Otaviano connects the two most famous beaches in Rio -- Copacabana and Ipanema -- and traffic races like the Brazilian Grand Prix to get between the two. The location in Aproador, however, is excellent, and with spectacular beaches at either end of the road, those staying at the Residencia Apartments are spoilt for choice.
Residencia Apartments are an absolute bargain. They work out at $50 a night, and for that, you get your own apartment. There is dining table, a couch of sorts, a kitchen with cutlery, and a utility room with a washing machine overlooking a shaft. The wardrobe contains a safety deposit box, and the ubiquitous cable television is at hand. Each morning, breakfast, which is included in the price, is served by a Biaiana woman in your room. She brings you bananas, coffee, cake, rolls, and orange juice. The fridge is restocked each day with fizzy orange, coke, or Brahma beer, which will, of course, be added to your bill.
To be frank, I cannot think of a better location. It is right in the middle of wealthy, fashionable Aproador, with "H Stern", the diamond jewelers, to one side. All around it are five-star, expensive Othons, Hiltons, and Meridians. This tiny gem of an apartment block is in the location of the "big boys", but at a fraction of their price. And the location was the main attraction -- right between Ipanema and Copacabana. Incidentally, this is where the main drag of Copacabana ends and where the buses turn. It is a good place to catch a bus into Centro, and seeing the buses take corners with their over-eager drivers is quite an experience. I swear, one morning I saw one bus tilt and go on two wheels.
The owner is an elderly gentleman who is exceptionally friendly and likes to practice his English. Any advice about what to take to the beaches, where to go, etc, is generously given. And the beaches are the main attraction. Wandering down Rua Francisco Otaviano are surfers clutching boards. A quick walk through the tiny park takes you to the Aproador headland, where waves crash onto the beach and rocks. The waves here are very good, and there are always heads bobbing in the surf.
This is where the beach starts its great sweep of Ipanema. Take off your shoes, let the sand between your toes, and let the cool Atlantic wash over your hot feet.
It doesn't get any better than this...
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on November 13, 2004
Residencial Apartt- Budget flats near the beach
Rua Francisco Otaviano, 42
Rio de Janeiro 22080-040
21 2522 1722
Restaurant | "Monchique - Get in touch with your inner glutton"
Avenida Nsa Sra de Copacabana, 796-A
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Attraction | "Praia Velhelmo - golden beach that nobody knows"
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on November 13, 2004
Praia Velhelmo - Golden Beach
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Brasil! Brasil! Brasil!
Flashes from thousands of cameras flicker as the roar gets even louder. The muscles in your stomach tighten, and your heart starts to beat. The shouts reach a crescendo as you climb up the steps and emerge onto the pitch. The sea of colour...the waving flags...the sheer volume of voices becomes thunderous. The world seems to go mad....
I cannot recommend the Maracana Stadium tour enough. It blew me away, and I came away not just impressed at the professional museum they had set up, but emotional as well. For anyone with an appreciation and love for the beautiful game, as Pele called it, a visit here is de rigeur.
Maracana ranks with the Corcovado and Sugarloaf as one of the great tourist icons of Rio de Janeiro. It was built in 1950 and was the biggest football stadium in the world. More than 100,000 spectators attended the inaugural game; now, due to FIFA regulations that the world’s stadiums have to have seats, rather then stands, it houses just 60,000. The games played here and the players involved have become world legends -- Pele, Garrincha, Zico, and Ronaldo. Brazil must have a factory tucked away in the Amazon which produces endless amazing players. You cannot separate Brazil from futebol. To watch Brazil play is to watch the game being played to perfection -- you have never seen a country use such flair and imagination on the pitch. The world's football teams go against this goliath every four years in the World Cup. If they are lucky, Brazil will have an off-day (versus France 1998). If they are unlucky?...well, the respect the world has is such that no one really begrudges losing to them.
The stadium makes a good half-day excursion. Tours can be booked at your hotel, or you can do it independently. My hotel suggested attending the Flamengo versus Fluminese game, but unfortunately, I had to turn it down, as I was flying to the Pantanal that day. I did, however, take the METRO to Maracana station, and from there, the stadium is a short walk along the concrete walkway, which feeds thousands of fans into the stadium. The stadium itself is breathtaking from the outside. It towers hundreds of feet into the air, and there are indentations like those on the Coliseum arrayed around the outside. Entrance is gained from the main street that follows the motorway, and this, in turn, leads to a very modern museum. At the entrance to the museum is a small piece of green turf. Here is a footballer in the national kit of yellow shirt and shorts, showing off his ball skills to the tourists.
Next to him is the futebol Hall of Fame, with inductees’ foot and boot prints preserved in concrete. You can see Julinho, Orlando, Bellini, and current football god Ronaldo -- but the biggest crowds are grouped around Pele, the greatest world footballer ever. Then, it is inside the museum, which is a joy. For 12 reals, you can roam around a very high-tech museum that only opened in 2000. Ingles-speaking guides are there to help you, and an elevator will take you to the sixth floor, which gives an overview of the entire stadium.
You emerge from the elevator high up in the stands, and it truly is a wow moment. The biggest in the world? How do you describe it? A 200-foot-long oval pitch, with goalposts at either end. Rising up like waves are rows and rows of seats, all coloured yellow, blue, and white. The seats were covered in a concentric concrete canopy. In front of me was the press pit, and in the middle of the pitch was where the tunnel from the changing rooms emerged. Numerous machines watered the pitch, and a player headed the ball into the air below me for the tourists.
Back down in the museum, you are greeted by the caption below:
BRAZIL -- FIVE TIMES CHAMPION -- THE COUNTRY OF FOOTBALL
This ran above blown up photos of all the World Cup-winning teams. They won in 1958, 1962, 1970 (against title defending champions England), 1994, and 2002. It was looking at the team for 2002 that the memories came flooding back for me -- Ronaldo, Rovinho, goggle-eyed Ronaldinho. On the day we played Brazil, I got up early and went over the road to the pub as the game was being played in Japan. Watching the most nervous game of the tournament in a tense pub, there was that feeling of ecstasy when England scored first, slowly decreasing as the Brazilian juggernaut ground us down. The forward strikers of Ronaldo and Ronaldino dashed through our defenses, as lithe as samba dancers. They played such an incredibly entertaining game that anyone who loves the game has a bond with the Brazilian team.
Then it was downstairs to the changing rooms. I was bowled over -- my imagination ran riot. There were huge rows of metal bathtubs and tons of coat hooks where the team kit would be hung, ready for the next game. A row of twenty showers and an indoor green pitch, complete with practice net.
Then it was time for the tunnel, which runs from the changing rooms to the middle of the pitch. They recreate with lights, sounds, and SFX, the feeling of walking down that tunnel onto the pitch at the start of the game. Strobe lights recreate flashbulbs going off, and the sound of drums and voices plays and builds to a deafening crescendo. The rising excitement was taking over -- I was beginning to feel I was beginning a game. When I climbed the stairs, my stomach was knotted, and I had a lump in my throat. I blinked into the daylight, and all those 60,000 seats, in my mind’s eye, were filled with ecstatic fans. My heart was beating fast, and I had a tear in my eye.
I did become emotional. I don't know what it was. Love of Brazil? Love of football? All I knew was that I felt like crying. I was standing in the middle of Maracanas pitch, and I felt as if my heart was breaking. On the way out, there is a big picture of Ronaldo, swathed in the yellow Brazilian flag. The caption states:
Be proud to be Brasilian...
I may not be Brasilian in nationality, but for a few moments today, I certainly was in spirit....
The rarest and most exquisite plants in the world grow in profusion in Brazil. The 'Orquidario' at the botanical gardens was a knockout. There were orchids of every pattern, colour, and shape -- bright yellow-veined, striking pink, ornate scarlet, drooping violet, and blooming white. Surely the most exotic flowers in the world?
The gardens were started in 1808 by the exile Portuguese Emperor Dom Jao, who created it out of virgin jungle. He meant to create the Brazilian equivalent of Kew Gardens. I think it is one of the forgotten treasures of Rio. Most tourists hit the Corcovado or Sugarloaf, but along with Maracana, this was my favorite discovery on my latest trip to the Cidade Marvelosa. Brazil is probably themost diverse ecosystem on the planet, with so many plants and animals that many have not been discovered and catalogued yet. Many of these wonders are kept at the botanical garden, which is 60 acres of jungle and planned garden under the shadow of the Tijuca NP. This great jungle surrounds Rio in enclosing mountains, and if you are lucky, you may see animals from the NP, ie, monkeys and agouti. They will be exploring the botanical gardens just as you are.
It is situated at the far extremity of the Zona Sul, between the mountain jungles of Tijuca and the immense lake Lagoa de Freitas. It covers the foothills of the mountains, and the best way to get there is to take a taxi from Ipanema/Copacabana for about 10 reals. It is 4 reals’ entrance fee, and my advice is to buy a map at the entrance. The place is immense, and you could easily miss many of the little attractions that the gardens are so famous for. When I first started walking, I was struck by how different these gardens were to all the other botanical gardens I had visited all over the world. The difference, of course, is the near-perfect climate. Although I was there in September, the equivalent of their early spring, the temperatures in January/February can reach forty-five degrees C, with high humidity. This high temperature, combined with Rio's frequent rains and hot sun, has created a paradise for plants.
As you wander the gravel paths, soaring jungle trees predominate. Palms over 40 feet soar above you, their spaces broken by plants from all over Brazil. The trees I recognised included teak, mahogany, and of course, Brasilwood. These, since being planted in 1808, had grown into a profusion of shapes -- twisted boles and winding roots were everywhere I looked. Dotted in between were a thousand cycads, fronds, lianas, and bushes, all from the Brazilian interior.
My first major stop was the magnificent cascade in "the English fashion". The cascade rushed and bounced over a stone staircase, almost obliterated by jungle plants. Tucked behind up the slope was a "folly," an ancient Victorian observation post with views across the gardens. Nearby was Lagoa Frei, a lake surrounded by colossal bamboo stalks and verdant trees. This was where the famous Amazonian water-lillies -- Victoria Regia -- were grown. They must be seasonal, as I only saw the smaller variety, and then only one or two. A water bird and egret decided they liked them and sat squarely and precariously in the middle of the lake.
Then next was the "Insectouros", where the flesh-eating plants were kept. Smaller than the B-movie variety, these were popular with Brazilian schoolchildren, so it was quite a squeeze in the gruesome greenhouse. For all to see were the Venus Flytraps, which were absolutely tiny, but their snapping jaws were still there. The Diouna(see photo) was an elongated plant where a landing fly or insect would slip into the long stem. There, the plant’s strong digestive juices would slowly dissolve the insect over a week, and for the first few days, it would still be alive.
Then a trellis-covered colonnade led to the 'Orquidaria'. A security guard stood outside, carefully watching all those who wanted to view these valuable commodities. Inside was a white-marble circular atrium packed to the rafter with hundreds of blossoming orchids. Notoriously hard to grow and exceptionally rare (even in the Amazon), here were hundreds and hundreds of the flowers. I was bowled over. Their slender stems ended in flowers with protruding faces -- veined with red or dramatic white. Next door was another greenhouse housing plants native to the surrounding national park. One of the most impressive things about the jardim are the giant peaks surrounding it. This was brought home by the sight of the Christo Redentor in the distance and, occasionally, the branches waving, showing that wild monkeys were in the vicinity.
The central area of the park is the one which appears on all the brochures. The Charariz Centrale is a baroque fountain sitting at the centre of a wheel, from which palm-lined avenues spiral out. The palms (see photo) are so tall that they block out the sunlight, and each one is planted in perfect unison with the other. Finally, there is the Regica Amazona -- a replica of the Amazon rainforest based around a small lake. Reachable by bridge over the lake is an island with a reed hut. A mannequin of an Indian signifies the life of the Amazon, while the lake itself is choked with waterlilies and fronds of plants.
The sixty acres of the park are maintained by a gang of exuberant Carioca gardeners. There seems to be a whole army of them, and they seemed to be having a good time as they moved around the park. I found myself envying them. It must be a wonderful job in the sunshine, with good workmates. Every gardener I passed nodded a greeting. The Jardim Botanico is a hit for them as well. One of the wonders of Rio?
I watched this as I made my way to the tram, which was going to take me up to Santa Theresa. Santa Theresa is a bairro high above on the hills of Rio and has a reputation for bohemia. Artists, writers, and performers all dwell up there, and it is a town within a city, reached only by bondinho (tram). This is the last of the great trams which used to climb the hills of Rio and is more used by the locals than tourists. But tourists have discovered it, and it is perfectly safe to rattle along, as the views as you climb the hills of Rio are extraordinary.
Of course, Santa Theresa was famous for one resident. And for decades, to the British, Rio de Janeiro was synonymous with one man: Ronnie Biggs, the last of the "great train robbers". He lived here since the sixties and became a local tourist attraction. I can still remember the breaking news in 1981, when the British press descended on Rio after his hiding place in Santa Theresa was revealed. And because Brazil had no extradition treaty with the UK, Scotland Yard couldn't touch him, despite the fact that in 1965, he robbed the London-Scotland mail train and made off with the equivalent of 10 million sterling. He lived for nearly forty years on the proceeds, enjoying himself and cocking a snoop at any British policeman who came his way. He was so outrageous that he had barbeques on Sundays where you could buy t-shirts saying "I met with Ronnie Biggs," and he became a local celebrity, even having his own float on the Rio Carneval.
But as time went by, he became exceptionally homesick (despite having a wife and son in Rio), and his health began to fail. In 2002, he boarded a plane for London, knowing that justice was waiting for him at the other end. He was right. As soon as he landed on British soil, he was arrested and started to serve his sentence in Broadmoor Prison. Despite being a villain, there was something rather endearing about Ronnie Biggs. A loveable rogue, you might say...
I was thinking about him as I approached the tram to Santa Theresa. To board it, you must get to Centro (central Rio) and the tram station. This is right in the centre, and a taxi from Zona Sul costs about 20 reals, while a bus costs 1.50. To find the tram station, you must spot the huge "rubix cube" of the Petrobas building. This monstrosity can be seen from everywhere in Centro and is west of the Caricoa METRO station and north of the Cinelandia METRO station. The great white aqueduct of the Arcos de Lapa marks one end, and it is just south of the brutalist concrete Cathedral Metropolitana.
For the people of Santa Theresa, it is the only way down from their bairro high up on the mountain. The station resembles any other station, with a platform where the boarding tram waits. The fare is just 60 centavos, and you must have the agility to climb aboard a rickety, fragile-looking tram. If you can't climb up from the foot rail, you can't climb aboard -- simple as that. Once there are enough people aboard, there is a jolt as the tram starts. At the beginning, it is rather like a fair ground ride as it wheezes uphill. Then -- WHACK! -- we were travelling across the Arcos de Lapa. The aqueduct soars 100 feet off the ground and has room for one tram travelling across. The views were astonishing, and I could see right across Rio to the docks. Those hanging onto the sides of the bondinho were above a sheer drop as it moved across the aqueduct.
As we rattled up the steep hill, either side was full of dilapidated colonial buildings in various states of disrepair. The driver gave it some horsepower, we shuddered higher and higher, and by the first stop, we were already full. A Rastafarian hung onto the rail near me, and behind him I could see more and more impressive views of Rio. We eventually, after twenty minutes, reached Praca Guimares -- the halfway stage where numerous restaurants and bars were situated. If you are under any impression that this is a tourist trap, then think again. The denizens of Santa Theresa went about their business without noticing me. I had a Coke in a bar, and they treated me as if they would any other customer. That’s the thing with Rio -- you fit in with it, not it with you...
I found a street leading to the tram depot, which had superb views over Santa Theresa and its forest of colonial houses. If you follow the tram line to the very end, then you will hit park ruines, where a battered mansion overlooks Rio. As I wandered around, I noticed a lot of the colonial mansions were getting a lick of paint. They were being slowly gentrified -- one of these rotting mansions with security gates could be a good investment for the future. And who says cariocas are thieves? At the neighbourhood bank, a woman left her cash card in the machine, and about three people sought her out to give it back. Very nice people, the Brazilians.
And then it was back down to Centro. The tram came back down but was pretty full. The only chance I had at catching it was if I stood on the outside foot rail and hung on for dear life. This, I managed to do (not easy in flip-flops), and I gripped the handrail tightly. This was fine until we went back over the Arcos de Lapa.
Whhhooaaaahhhh…I'm shutting my eyes…
To reach the Cathedral Metropolitana, head north to Largo Carioca (see other journal). Around here is Rio at its busiest. Suited Cariocas dash down from the skyscrapers to grab a bit of lunch in the small bars that dot the area. The usual hawkers and magazine sellers dot the streets, and you can buy sunglasses, corn on the cob, and flowers as you pass along the street. The cathedral is cut off from central Rio by a huge concrete motorway and takes a little bit of care to reach. First of all, orient yourself by finding the Petrobasbuilding. Another Brazilian high-tech modernist building, this looks like a giant rubix cube soaring over Rio. On its eastern side is Avenida Chile -- follow this north, and you will hit the motorway. Once you have crossed the motorway via its little pedestrian islands, you will find yourself in the sun-blasted car park of the Cathedral.The Cathedral itself inspires interesting reactions. It resembles a 100-foot Mayan pyramid or concrete teepee. A small mountain was levelled in the sixties for it to be built, and it dominates everything around it. It can be seen from the Santa Theresa tram and even from the viewing platform of the Christo Redentor. This Ferro-concrete conical mountain is unique, being brushed over with indentations which look like honeycomb. It reminded me of the Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters. There are three entrances, each facing a different point of the compass. I climbed the steps, and I could already hear Gregorian chanting coming from inside. Inside it resembles a rocket silo -- a huge, conical ceiling soared above me, showing a Greek cross made out of clear glass. Most impressive were the stained-glass windows that reached 50 feet in the air (see photo). The altar was a central platform surrounded by art-deco statuaries. It was time to find a place to sit and relax to take it all in.A real Mass was going on at the back, and I could hear the sounds of devotion. I did get a feeling of spiritual awe. Despite, or maybe because of its unprepossessing exterior, this was a church with a strong soul. And for that alone, it got my respect.
London, United Kingdom