Rio de Janeiro Stories and Tips

The "Bondinho" - the clanking tram up to Santa Theresa

Arcos de Lapa Photo, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Some cities have hawkers, and other cities have street performers. Rio has full-fledged acrobats. They choose the most captive audiences to perform to, as well. On a road just off Praca IVX, the traffic was brought to a halt. There, standing in the middle of the road, was a set of teenagers. One boy supported another on his shoulders, and as I watched, another clambered on his shoulders and started juggling. The traffic was brought to a complete stand-still, and people patiently leaned out of their cars and waited for the act to finish while a younger boy ran to their windows with a cap for money. Only in 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…

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