Well, no. not really. We found Rio as safe and as welcoming as any city we have visited so far, and as for it’s reputation for the fairer sex, the streets were not paved with buxom beauties in string bikinis (so Leah tells me, I was of course, not looking). So, cliches discarded, on with the tour…
We arrived via Santo Dumont airport as we’d managed to find some cheap flights from Campo Grande. Although South American air travel is on the whole expensive, it is definitely worth double checking – particularly in countries like Brazil, Argentina and Chile where the bus travel doesn’t come cheap either. For us, the airfare was pretty much on par with the cost of travellling by road and, more importantly, 20 hours quicker. True, it meant we’d have to do a bit of doubling back on ourselves as we were going straight to Rio rather than via Ouro Preto (more on this gem of a town in the next post) but it was still the preferable option.
If you’re landing at Santo Dumont, the airport which serves internal flights and short distance carriers, then be sure to pick a seat on the right hand side of the plane if you have the chance – if the wind is in the right direction and the clouds are high you will get a spectacular aerial view of one the world’s most recognisable landmarks – Cristo Redentor – Big Jesus.
We were staying in a great little hostel just off Ipanema beach called The Mango Tree, right next to the world famous Garota de Ipanema restaurant (Girl From Ipanema) where the song was written. It’s a 1930’s renovated colonial style house with lovely, hotel-standard, private rooms. The staff are incredibly friendly and helpful, the breakfast some of the best we’ve tasted so far and there is a great, chilled out vibe to the place – not too many teens running about at all hours of the morning!!
After a quick power nap and a shower, we head off to explore. Rio is one of those cities that fills you with excitement just stepping out the door. As we’re still pretty shattered from the journey (yes we might have flown but it was at 3am in the morning after a 5 hour bus journey from Bonito!) we stay local and roam the streets of Ipanema and nearly Leblon before heading down to the beach to watch the waves. After a few beers and some food the lack of sleep begins to hit and we head off for an early night in preparation for a day of being tourists.
The next morning, we jump on the 570 bus from right outside the hostel door and head towards the Corcovado (literally, humpback), where Cristo Redentor roosts. But by the time we get there the sky has clouded over and not wanting a wasted trip, we decide to head up to Lapa and Santa Teresa instead. Lapa, in central Rio, is famed second for its historic monuments but first for it’s nightlife. Unfortunately, we are in Rio at the beginning of the week so don’t really get a chance to enjoy it at it’s best – if you have the choice you should come at the weekend when things really kick off and you can truly experience Carioca (an inhabitant of Rio) nightlife. We roam through the streets, past the Lapa Arches and the Municipal Cathedral. The latter looks nothing like a cathedral from the outside and is actually quite ugly to be truthful. On the inside though the story is very different and it’s an impressive space, although surprisingly modern for such a traditional Catholic country.
Having soaked up the architecture of Lapa, we catch the tram up the hill to Santa Teresa, a district of cobbled streets, brightly coloured houses and art studios galore. It’s not what we expected to find in Rio but it’s an oasis of calm and charm after the slightly more brash beach scene. We stop for a beer in a cute cafe and later for lunch in an awesome small family-run joint overlooking the rest of the city.
That evening, back in Ipanema, we enjoy some excellent choppe (draught) Brahma, a metre of Brazilian sausage (insert your own joke) and several (may have been more) delicious caipirinhas. Then it’s off to bed with all the best laid plans to rise early for another shot at Big Jesus.
Of course, the best laid plans and all that…but after a night on the caipirinhas we didn’t make it up and out quite as early as we had hoped and although it was a lovely sunny day, the clouds were threatening to come in. To top it off, when we arrived at the foot of the Corcovado at 10.30am we were told that the next available train wasn’t until 11.40am. Oh. A few quick calculations and we realised there was no way we could make it up and back to the hotel in time for our favela tour at 2pm. Gutted. But just as we were about to admit defeat (and Leah was about to cry), a nice man in a pale green shirt accosted us and told us that he could take us up in a minivan instead. Result!
For 20 reals, the minivan would take us up and back, stopping on the way so we could take photos of Jesus from the distance and we were free to take the minivan back whenever we wanted. Entrance to Christ himself was another 17 reals, bringing the total to 37 – the same price as getting the train. So we hopped in the van, eagerly waited for it to fill with passengers (about 15 minutes) and then we were off.
We’d managed to shave an hour off our wait but time was still looking tight so it was a bit of a speed tour at the top. But the most important thing was that it was a beautifully clear day and we had spectacular views of the city and got some amazing photos. The weather is a bit unpredictable so our advice is if it looks sunny, go up as soon as you can – we heard of one girl who went up three times and only ever saw Jesus’s big toe. Apparently Obama was visiting a few days later but I’m not sure whether he was quite so lucky with the weather!
After filling the camera with photos we raced back down the hill, this time taking the train. I can honestly say it’s not a particularly interesting or scenic journey, so don’t feel you’ve missed anything by taking a minivan, although we did have a rather amusing samba band to keep us company. Back at the bottom, we hopped on a bus with a little over an hour to get home – plenty of time we thought. We hadn’t reckoned on Rio traffic being THAT bad. At Copacabana, we switched to a cab to speed things up and thankfully made it back with 10 minutes to spare (due in part to me telling Leah the pick up was 15 minutes earlier than it actually was because i knows she likes to be “just” on time).
After a quick pit stop for some food, it was off on our next tourist adventure – a tour of the favelas. First it was off to Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio, which is home to more than 100,000 people. (Officially. Unofficially the figure is much higher.) This particular favela is still ruled by the drug cartel the ‘Friends of Friends’ rather than the police and we are instructed by our guide that we are not to take photos unless he says we can otherwise we risk having our cameras taken off us. As we exit the minivan we are ordered to stay close and the guide looks visibly nervous. He tells us we are free to walk the length of the small craft market, an area of about 20 metres, and when someone from the group laughs he says ‘no, I’m serious’.
After 10 minutes, we jump back into minivan and he takes us up onto the roof of one of the buildings deep inside the favela (we walk through what looks like a chop-shop to get there) from where we can look back down over the whole favela. It’s here that you truly appreciate the vastness of it all. The guide is very knowledgeable, and it is interesting to hear his views on the favelas – their history, the way they operate today, the problems with trying to eradicate them, the involvement (and corruption) of the police.
Soon, it is time for us to leave for a second favela, this time a much smaller settlement and not run by drug dealers so much safer too. This is a neighbourhood which the tour company is heavily involved with and 50% of their profits goes towards community projects here. After a tour round, we share a caipirinha and some delicious barbecued pork before heading back to the hostel.
Later that evening, it’s off on another bus to Belo Horizonte, en route to Ouro Preto. Brazil is expensive, even more so if you’re in one of the major cities. So unless you’re one of the many ‘gap yar’ brats travelling on daddy’s plastic, this place will bankrupt even the thriftiest of backpackers. As a result, we’ve decided to spend a relatively short time in Brazil and just cover the major sites and a few small gems before heading off. Unfortunately this means a hectic schedule and lots of long bus journeys – Brazil is a massive country and it’s a bit of a shock after South East Asia. Still, once we get out of Brazil, we hope to slow things down a bit and relax more.
Check out the Brazil photo gallery (link on the right) for loads of other Rio photos.