Rio de Janeiro. Rolls off the tongue when you pronounce it and your mind’s eye instantly materializes with vivid images of tropical beaches or aerial panoramas of Christ the Redeemer. It tickles the senses as much as an exotic samba dancer in full-feathered costume, doesn't it? What a pleasantly sounding name! I wonder what would the name be today had the Portuguese – back in 1502 – realized that what they had actually stumbled upon was not the mouth of a river, but rather a bay (today called Guanabara); and if instead of January 1st, they arrived a day earlier? How does Golfo (or Baía) de Dezembro sound to you? Funny thing, history sometimes, ain’t it?
Regardless. The “River of January” it is, but no matter the name, who doesn't dream of visiting – at least once in their lifetime – the land of Copacabana, bikini-clad beauties, Samba, Maracanã, Pelé, Christo Redentor, and Carnival? And when the stars align and Rio becomes the venue for the most highly anticipated World Cup in recent history, that proposition becomes a no-brainer!
|... my "precious"...|
So after months and months of feverish planning, mockery from non-believers, and a constantly gruesome hunt for the most sought-after tickets in sporting history, the itinerary was done. Planned to the very last detail, for I wanted to take in the beauty of the place as much as humanly possible. We had 4 and a half days in Rio and I was determined to see and do as much as others would do in 10!
In the end, that amount of time was only enough to scratch the surface (especially since a good part of it was spent watching the world cup, either live at the Maracanã, at the Fan Zone on Copa, or in any of the bars around). But it was enough to get a sense of its raw natural beauty, of its stark contrast between poverty and luxury, and especially of its warm, friendly, and free-spirited people. Amazing place, Rio!
|Praia de Ipanema - steps from |
As hotel prices were prohibitive (can’t really blame them for price-gouging since supply and demand were somewhere in the Germany-Brazil scoreline ratio) the much-touted Clark Howard AirBnB solution became a more economical alternative. But the price-gouging plague was present there as well [seemed like most of the local travel and real estate agents had that covered]. FlipKey (from the more reputable Tripadvisor) turned out to be a better [safer] option and our local host, the first welcoming Carioca we met on this trip. I guess $400/night can buy that kind of pleasantness, but Isabel was indeed genuine.
Our studio was literally less than 100 steps from Ipanema beach [we thought Copacabana would be too crowded and noisy; assumptions that turned out to be true] and although very quaint and clean, complete with gated access, we clearly overpaid, since it was only used for a place to lay down [late] at night and clean up in the morning before hitting the city again. I do recommend it, and I’m sure the prices are a fraction of that during any other time of the year [Carnival excluded].
I connected with Ken – a wonderful Brit I met online [no, not that kind of online hookup ;-)] – in a crowded bar Astor to exchange tickets.Despite FIFA’s gestapo-like rules and tactics around ticket sales and transfers, through the wonderful medium of the BigSoccer fan forum I managed to barter, swap, beg, bribe and ultimately secure the tickets needed to turn the dream of watching a live game at Maracanã into reality. And that dream turned into reality not once, but twice. I lived the joyous experience of watching Messi score a fantastic goal off the post against Bosnia, but also the disappointment of Spain being a huge dud against [a rather spirited] Chile. As much as I had anticipated a live Spain game, I really wanted to walk out at some point… Painful to watch, but joyful experience in the same time. Hard to explain that mix of emotions to a non-believer…
But enough about football for now. I covered it in plenty detail in my recent World Cup entries, and I’ll undoubtedly revisit it throughout this post, for it was such a big part of the trip.
The first immersion into the local culture and cuisine was lunch at Academia da Cachaça. Potent Caipirinhas, delicious Feijoada, washed down with ice-cold Brahma [who knew Brazil had such fantastic beer?] and an authentic atmosphere of locals who were enjoying Sunday family lunch. I knew from day one that this would be an enjoyable vacation!
Tickets in hand, full of anticipation, and wearing the albiceleste we set off to Maracanã. I caught a quick glimpse of the legendary stadium from afar during the earlier cab ride from the airport, but as I stepped off the train, the grandiose structure, adorned with colorful decorations, popped up as an immense glorious temple to the beautiful game. The expectation of setting foot in this iconic venue produced ample goosebumps, throat lumps, and had my heart racing with excitement (kid-in-the-candy-store kind). But before that, I had to experience a solid dose of rage directed at FIFA and the incompetence of a couple of people responsible for “customer service”. I won’t go into details again. You can read about that unfortunate experience here.
Once in, I was stunned by the number of Argentinians in the stands. Their heart-pumping chants made me want to jump. Made me wish I knew better Spanish. Yet, wearing the albiceleste jersey with a big 10 on my back made me feel like one of them. Messi’s moment of brilliance [in an otherwise low key game] gave them a reason to carry the party atmosphere well into the night!
Jet-lagged, but already with a great story for the grand-kids, we crashed, but not before enjoying a delicious tropical fruit juice night cap at a street corner near the apartment. Tropical fruits taste so much better … ahem… on the tropics! I could live on that stuff alone as a food source. Yum!
Day 2, the obligatory trip to Corcovado and the Christ Statue. Up early, to beat the crowds that were undoubtedly hung over from partying the night before, meant that we made it up before the fog had lifted. On the plus side, it wasn't very crowded. But visibility was low. They say the best views from the top are after it rains, or in the afternoon, when the weather clears… but we still caught a glimpse or two of the beach below and Laguna Rodrigo de Freitas…. No aerial view of Maracanã, Sugarloaf or downtown though… Something to put in the “next time” bucket.
The statue itself was absolutely imposing. And we caught some semi-solo pics to memorialize the experience. Word of advice: don’t take the Corcovado cog train up; everyone else does; it will be crowded and lines will be long (but the ride through the tropical forest could make up for it). Instead, book tickets in advance with the minivan through Paineiras and it will be less hectic (and they pick up/drop off right on Copacabana).
On the way back, the Fan Zone was another mandatory stop. More so since Germany and Portugal were about to lock horns. In the end, it was more of a cat-and-mouse chase, with the game technically over by half time. Which was fine, as the mid-day sun was already unbearable, despite the fact that we were less than a week away from Winter Solstice in the southern hemisphere. I wonder how hot it gets during the summer...
Less than a mile travelling SE, the other famous Rio beaches line up: Ipanema – not as wide, and with a greater blend of locals and tourists, and Leblon – where the tourist ranks thin out even more (and so does the cheesiness factor). The ocean on these beaches seems more tumultuous than in Copacabana, which is why I was expecting more surfing activity. Maybe the locals have their spots elsewhere. And maybe the bikini beauties that you see in all the Rio ads hang out elsewhere too, for I haven’t seen many. Or maybe they’re just Photoshoped! Hmmm… Omnipresent, however, is the soccer ball, with boys and girls of all ages drawn to it as if it were a magnet; it was fun to watch, although frankly I didn't see a lot of ‘quality’. For that, one would have to go up to the favelas, where all the promising young talent is born.
After a good dose of Ipanema beach, time for another “must” in Rio: a samba show. Typically, a few months before Carnaval all the schools start practicing and tourists can watch them rehearse. But otherwise, Plataforma is a great alternative. It’s a dinner-and-a-show tourist trap, but the quality of the show is actually quite good, giving you enough appreciation for the local folklore, music, dancing, and costumes. It goes beyond Samba, with Carimbo, Forro, Jongo, Lundu, and even a Capoeira demonstration on the repertoire. The place is a bit run down (I hear it’s been around for ages), and the wait staff is pushy in selling pictures and trinkets around the show. But it you don’t let that bother you, you’ll have a great time. I would also recommend skipping the pre-show dinner they offer and instead go just around the corner to Academia da Cachaça for something more authentic; it was our second stop there in as many days, watching USA exert revenge on Ghana, and making some new Chilean friends!
(High heels, feathers and all, but that was some freakishly TALL chick!)
On the way back to Ipanema, we got another taste of Carioca hospitality and humbleness: cab fare was about R$11 and we were 1 real short (about USD 45 cents). The driver happily settled with the R$10 bill, without a tip, saying “it’s no problem!” For those of us living in an increasingly greedy capitalistic society it meant a lot; so much so that my brother in law gave him a US $5 tip (100%) on top of the fare, which he only accepted after we strongly insisted! As they say, you catch more flies with honey, and this was only one of the many experiences that gave me a great appreciation for the local people: helpful, open-hearted, honest, and full of life.
The start of day 3 was inspired by the hang gliding clip at the end of the movie Rio [the animated feature film about the adventures of a rare blue macaw]. After narrowing down a few reputable companies, we settled on Beto Rotor (a 20 year voo libre veteran) and his crew. There are several outfits flying from Pedra da Gávea (Parque Nacional da Tijuca) but we went with Beto based on his Tripadvisor feedback and recommendations from Felipe (one of the guys I exchanged tickets with, who and used to live in Rio).
The brief preparation for something like this could be a little unsettling – especially for those of us who did this for the first time. The fact that the instructions (in limited English) are very brief can add to the level of anxiety. By comparison, a recent white water rafting trip we took in the US (on level 3 rapids for the most part, so not very “demanding”) required a good 30 min preparation, watching videos, and signing all kinds of legal waivers. This pre-flight experience here included a quick online questionnaire (made up data if you didn’t have the passport number, for example) and no more than 5 short instructions: run fast; jump; keep your feet up; careful at landing; enjoy!
And enjoy we did!
For right after your heart shrinks to the size of a pea and is about to burst through your chest, right after the “run fast” piece, you’re FLYING. Gliding, actually, but floating on air nonetheless, with a ‘wingspan’ of about 10 meters of Brazilian flag above your head. Before you’re really fully aware of what’s going on [in retrospect, maybe that’s what the instructors’ plan was all along] you’re getting a first-hand appreciation of what a birds’ eye view looks like. It’s an eerie quiet up there, and you want to shout with excitement, but don’t want to spoil the tranquility of the birds nearby with your screams. The warm currents from the sea can keep you up, or carry you along the coast for a long time, but as this is a commercial enterprise, and others are awaiting their turns at the top, the instructors get you down on the beach below in 7-8 minutes. 7-8 amazing minutes that is! I wanted to hug Beto once we landed, to thank him for giving me this experience. In the end, a high-five was more appropriate ;-)
The girls opted for the paragliding option [or was it really opted for them? it was all a bit confusing] and Laura, despite jumping blindly off the cliff at a 60% angle with a stranger on her back had a similarly joyful experience; comfortable enough to where she didn't care that her instructor took a phone call on his cell while up there, in the middle of her flight (around the 5:10 marker in the video)!
|Yup... Waaaaaay down there....|
|Forced smiles as we're about to jump!|
|Down in one piece!|
|Dry run ;-)|
I realize it is unnatural for humans to “fly” but for one who’s logged over 1 million flight miles [in motorized contraptions] so far, this was a very unique experience. Not as much physical, as it was spiritual and emotional. A bit of a closeness to God, in a sense… (or as humanly possible as one could get to that, flying in tandem with a complete stranger ;-) But I can now understand why Icarus could not resist the temptation to fly close to the sun…
|Had to get this guy in... He was just walking the Garfield look-alike on|
a leash, then the fat cat lodged itself on the bike, ready to ride.
Check out its motorcycle goggles!
Back in the city, the preparations were well under way for the much expected Brazil-Mexico clash. Everything was about to stand still for a few hours. Not exaggerating one bit. One could pitch a tent in the middle of the highway and would not have to worry about cars! We had plans to take the cable car up the Sugarloaf Mountain, and although the game was not until 4, they closed access shortly after noon for a “private event”. Although I thought they just wanted to go and watch the game, I learned later that they do indeed offer exclusive viewing parties at the top of the rock; we just weren't on the invite list.
The Urca neighborhood right below is one of those visual examples of the poverty gap. Nice mansions, chic residences, lush vegetation, in deep contrast to the shantytowns of cardboard and plastic just on the other side of the gulf. It’s quieter here, less touristy, and is where the locals like to hang out in the weekends, taking in the downtown views and sipping a cold beer at Bar Urca. But it’s a bit offhand, and considering the Rio traffic – really, the ONE negative aspect of our vacation – I can see why most people prefer to take the cable car UP the Pão de Açúcar instead of the streets around it.
After all this running around, Zaza Bistro provided a good respite and fantastic dinner experience. As a bit of a foodie, I’d definitely recommend it (would also recommend booking online in advance, unless you don’t care a long wait). It’s a bit pricey relative to some of the others mentioned here, but felt like we could ‘splurge’ on dinner one time…
Later in the evening, everyone heads out to Lapa. That’s where all the night action takes place: bars, live music, dance clubs, prostitution, drugs, the whole spectrum. For the most part, the area around the old viaduct that used to bring water to the city looks dingy, run down and dirty – think Tijuana combined with Bourbon Street in NOLA and a bit of Chicago South Side. But if you ask the locals, there are several good Samba clubs, excellent live music [Circo Voador] and decent restaurants. One such place – and a definite must – is Rio Scenarium: an eclectic, three story tastefully decorated venue where samba, jazz, and even house music feel equally at home and equally unfitting. Where the décor has something of a Mad Hatter [Alice in Wonderland] vibe, and where one of the many bars is called Jesus’ Pharmacy! Check out the pics to understand exactly what I’m talking about, for I’m no Hemingway:
|Birds-eye view of the Samba dance floor|
Word is that the location was an antique market at some point, and it started housing Samba concerts to make some extra money. They would move the furniture/antiques around to make room for the audience. Now, most of the antiques have been permanently moved ON the walls!
If you do go to Lapa, the advice is to take a taxi in and out. As much as it’s relatively safe in the area where all the bars and clubs line up, the surrounding streets are still ripe with crime, despite efforts from the local law enforcement to keep it clean. UPP (Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora) has made significant strides to clean up some of the crime elements in the favelas, but it is a David vs. Goliath undertaking, and it may take more time before the expected results are significant enough across the entire city. The World Cup brought droves of additional enforcement in that sense (and more will likely be present for the Olympics in two years) but poverty will always attract these unwanted elements. As much as we felt safe everywhere, chances are that may not be the case after the World Cup.
By day 4, I started to panic a bit: there was still so much to see, yet so little time left (especially since the afternoon was to be cut short by the Spain - Chile game. Which is why we booked a private guide – Olivia Alves – who turned out to be simply amazing; very knowledgeable, outgoing, passionate about her city, and a fun person to hang out with. I really wish we had more time with her, but definitely will next time!
First stop: the Vidigal favela. One where UPP presence is strong and where a lot of young artists are moving to. It’s smaller than most of the others (Rocina – much bigger in size – is another that is relatively safe to visit as long as you go with a guide). Olivia actually lives there (although she can afford to live anywhere else) because she loves the people, the vibe, and the location. Yes, as much as poverty is rampant in most favelas, the paradox is that they actually have the best views any Rio real estate can buy!
|Olivia showing us her back yard!|
There is one narrow road that goes all the way to the top of Vidigal, but few people here have cars. Motorcycle taxi is the way to get around. They even waited for us at the top as we were taking in the breathtaking views. But as beautiful as this panorama was, the poverty on display on the way up, the lack of sanitation, and piles of garbage at every corner cannot be ignored. Yet, there was plenty of construction, which indicates progress. I’m sure this favela will become prime real estate in a few years; there are already some nice hostels, the city is tying it up to the electricity grid, and apartment prices have already doubled in a few short years. One just has to come to grips with the reality that it’s not all ‘roses’…
From Vidigal, it’s off to Santa Teresa – one of the oldest neighborhoods in Rio, set on a hilltop, where once the wealthy inhabitants found refuge from the sweltering heat in the valley below. The road circles the Laguna Rodrigo de Freitas (it seems no matter where you go you have to pass by, as there aren't as many main thoroughfares in Rio… something that might become an even bigger issue during the Olympics)
...then it goes up the mountain through picturesque landscapes, offering breathtaking views of the city below.
Unfortunately, the area is surrounded by several favelas, and although safe during the day, there have been incidents of robbery at gunpoint from those who ventured off the beaten path…
|The city below barely visible through the fog and smog...|
|"Bring back Bondinho - the St. Teresa Tram!"|
... some of the old homes in the area...
|Another favela between Santa Teresa and (a barely visible) Downtown|
As much as this was an upper-class neighborhood a while back (still apparent from the architecture) it is now more of an artists’ hotbed and a tourist destination. The famous Santa Teresa tram (similar to the one in San Francisco) has been closed since 2011 due to a tragic accident. There were plans to reopen it for the World Cup, but politics apparently have impeded that. Hopefully it will be back before the Olympics…
On the way down from Santa Teresa towards Lapa, the Escadaria Selarón is another colorful attraction. The Chilean-born Selarón – a painter somewhat in the same genre as Dali, or at least as extravagant – started it in 1990 as a project to repair the stairs in front of his home. He passed away in January last year, but his work, counting over 2,000 colorful tiles from over 60 countries (about 300 painted by the artist himself) across 250 meters in length is now a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy part of town. Initially it was meant to be a tribute to Brazil (using only green, yellow and blue tiles) but as you can see, it is much more colorful today, with red a predominant color as well…
The tour with Olivia continued through a gridlocked downtown to the Metropolitan Cathedral (or the New Cathedral as it’s called locally). From the exterior, you wouldn't even know it’s a church, but the imposing conical structure (75 meters high, with an internal diameter of almost 100 meters) can accommodate 200,000 people standing. It did so – with thousands spilling in the adjacent streets – when the Pope held mass last year.
|The Lapa aqueduct with the Cathedral in the background|
Fighting traffic, it was off to Maracanã one last time, hoping that the earlier Dutch cold shower was just a fluke for Span. I felt lucky with ‘my’ tickets on hand [for this occasion exchanged with James and Felipe] as thousands upon thousands Chileans were crowding the nearby streets hoping for an extra ticket. As I entered the stadium, with a sea of red chanting ‘Chi-chi-chi-le-le-le’ I knew that Spain was doomed. Fantastic support, that made the Europeans feel like they were thrown in a lion pit with nothing but a pocket knife to defend. This was a South American world cup, after all! Casillas blundered everything that came to him, and when I saw Busquets miss an absolute sitter from 4 yards in front of the open goal, I knew it was all over… Much respect for a very spirited Chilean side, though! As we headed back to Copacabana, the Chi-chi-chi-le-le-le chants continued across the city well into the night…
For the last night in Rio, Garrafeiro Informal – a local bar around the corner from the apartment – offered another unforgettable opportunity to get to know the locals, down a few more caipirinhas, cold Chopp Brahmas, understand more about the social and political struggles of this country, and make new friends. Obrigado!
|A few last caipirinhas with Alex, Jeovana, Karla & Co.|
Next morning, with somewhat of a heavy heart, and ‘foggy head’ it was time to pack up and head south to Buenos Aires [link here]. More adventures awaiting – both around experiencing the World Cup in South America and visiting new and exciting places for the first time – but as we were waving good bye to Christ Statue atop Corcovado, I promised myself that I will make it back to Cidade Maravilhosa one more time. Now I know why most places on AirBnB and Flipkey had a 7 day minimum for property rentals; they were trying to tell me something!
As sure as the sun will rise, I will be back some day... soon!