One of the greatest attractors of all time in Brazil is Rio, this is irrefutable. It’s like a black hole that conversations naturally veer towards, with locals and foreigners casually mentioning neat little places they stayed and just how fabulous the place is as a whole. This is odd in some ways, considering how much the Paulistanos mock people from Rio (Cariocas), especially the accent, but it’s pretty difficult to find anything to dislike about the people or the city itself. So, despite months of resistance worrying we would like it too much, we finally succumbed to the cultural rip tides of Ipanema and Copacabana and planned a weekend getaway while my American-Peruvian amiga Lilia was visiting.
My friend Lilia and her friend, something-face, got to town before the weekend and spent a day or two exploring the city while Marelise and I were finishing up with our work week. They must have walked the city flat, because we they left the house before we did and they got back around about the same time we did. Between the specific things they already had on their agenda and some other spots and places we were able to share about Sampa, they filled their time to the brim and beyond. On Saturday we picked up some round-trip tickets to Rio for about R$160, and hopped on the bus. The downtown bus station wasn’t a pretty place that early in the morning, but it was easy enough to grab a bus to our hostel “El Misti” in Copacabana, about 4 blocks from the beach, freaking sweeeeeeet. (Just a side note: the El Misti has two locations, one for the hostel and another for private rooms and what they call an inn or “pousadas”; though these two places are only separated by about two or three blocks).Reception peeps were really friendly and let us store our packs near the reception desk even though we couldn’t check in until that afternoon. They also let us grab some free breakfast the same morning of check-in, so we were fueled up and excited for the day even after an eight hour overnight bus ride. Really friendly people is always a good sign and anyway, Marelise can be pretty difficult in the morning if she’s denied food that’s already within her line of sight so it worked out well for us.
I don’t know if I’ve mentioned before but now and again we use a Brazil travel book my sister gave me and that, plus tips from other people, gave us plenty of things to do during our two days there. So off we went; thank god for the maps app on my phone otherwise I’d be printing out directions and bus numbers for everywhere. Luckily the metro in Rio, while not as extensive, is great for the main tourist drags: Copacabana area all the way to downtown and the main bus station. We headed straight downtown first, to Escadaria Selarón aka the famous colorful Selaron Steps. Along with the warmth of the day, the moisture in the air (light drizzle rather than straight-up summer-style damp humidity) was totally do-able and though Marelise had her sarong over her head, we took lots of photos, hung around for others to take theirs and ambled around the corner to the next spot we wanted to hit. Before we quite get there though, the Escadaria deserves particular mention: Created by a Chilean artist Jorge Selarón there are 250 steps in the 125 meter staircase, the whole thing decorated with ceramic tiles with different patterns, images, homages and mosaics that he collected and salvaged over the years, mostly yellow, green, and blue like the flag, and red for the side pieces. Two of my (Marelise’s) favorites are a tile of Toulouse Lautrec’s Chat Noir (not very big, I almost walked right past it) and a beautiful mosaic of the African continent in bright, colorful tiles. Kiernan’s favorite was a section of gorgeous blue and white tiles with Arabic calligraphy that looked very similar to designs from the Alhambra in Granada. A few flights up the staircase opens up at the top on a grand, majestic tiled mosaic of the Brazilian flag; it even looks like it’s fluttering in a warm and sticky sea breeze…
Our stroll took us past some little alleyways and interesting-looking hidden bars, places of drink and debauchery that would only open way later in the day, when the sun wouldn’t be shining quite so brightly into their smoky windows. This area is apparently one of the biggest hubs of nightlife in Rio, though admittedly these streets behind the Escadaria are not as popular or well-fronted as the bars, clubs and lounges closer to the Lapa Arches, or Carioca aqueduct as it is also known. We took our time checking out the impressive range of graffiti murals but only snapped a couple of pictures since the area was a wee bit dodgy. The huge 17m high aqueduct that is the centerpiece of the area was officially inaugurated in 1750 and brought fresh water into the city. Today, of course, they switched to plumbing and now the Arches have become an impressive monument and a downtown icon.
Back in the downtown district, there is a really interesting feel in the historic center with a melting pot of architectural styles but predominately tall Italian Renaissance towers on every corner. This feels a little bit modeled after French or Italian cities, but it also reminded us of Buenos Aires for sure with the open plazas and cafes with plenty of seating for late afternoon drinks. From there we went weaving through the pit-pattering cobblestone streets that smelled of munky mist,and made our way first to the decadent Theatro Municipal with its goregous gold-rimmed green cupolas and giant timbery doors. Down the road at the Fine Arts museum (Museu Nacional de Belas Artes) we unfortunately failed to anticipate that it might be closed on Mondays. So we regrouped at a cafe and caught a bus towards Urca and Pão de Açúcar (aka Sugarloaf Mountain).
This is where they keep the famous cable cars lines going on 114 years, I think, and you can get one of the best and definitely most accessible panoramic views of Rio. Thankful that it wasn’t peak tourist season we caught a car up without having to wait in any lines. On top of the Sugary loaf you quickly get a feel for what Rio really looks like, a patchwork of neighborhoods and areas separated by huge hills across the entire landscape. To our right the bay in front of Botafogo was obviously where the city’s yacht club is as there were dozens of sleek white sailboats moored, but the rest of view was even more breathtaking: overlooking mostly Center and South Rio pocketed around the different hills, the stretches of Ipanema and Copacabana beaches… I can’t say I’ve ever seen another city like it. We stayed up at the viewpoint walking around for about an hour watching the low hanging clouds repeatedly cover and uncover the peaks of the city, especially seeing our first glimpse of the Jesus, until it got a bit chilly and we headed back down.
We grabbed a bus back towards our area in Copacabana and took a stroll down the boardwalk. Cloudy chilly day, mostly empty beach so no surprises there at all. Another reason to come back here in summer is the famous sunset from Copacabana beach – apparently people regularly relax on the beach for the sole purpose of watching the sun drop beneath the water and it’s common to have people applauding and cheering the sunset. I stopped for coco water near the beach and we found an easy dinner at one of the ever-present por kilo restaurants before heading back to the hostel to relax for a bit. Later on we nursed a few cold beers in cold, wet weather, at a bar a few blocks away called Garrafa de Boteca before meeting up with Lilia and her friend to go out. There wasn’t much going on it seemed (being a Monday and all), but one of the guys Lilia met suggested going to some sort of glow party bar at 11ish. They had a nice 6 person samba band, free caipiranhas with entrance until 12; we had nothing better to do and you don’t say no to free caipirinhas, even if they are a bit on the sugary side. I’m sure the headache the next morning was more because of the sugar than the amount of alcohol we had. Anyway, we put on a few stripes of glow paint for kicks, drank out of glow in the dark cups, and had a nice time dancing for Marelise’s birthday weekend and trying to set up Lilia with some Chileno.
Our second day we woke up early, fed the Marelise, and headed straight downtown to the museum of fine arts. It started out with a rather interesting modern art section as you can see from the neon light installation and the concave mirror piece that was a mosaic of tiny mirrors arranged in a fashion to achieve some sort of effect. The next half hour in the museum was extremely odd. Corridor after corridor and multiple rooms were completely empty with guards often sitting in corners guarding nothing. There weren’t even many artworks just replicas I’m assuming from other museums in Europe, it always seemed like they had been robbed recently and weren’t sure what to do with all their wall space. The last wing was charming though with a few Baroque religious pieces, and dozens of Neoclassical and Romantic pieces from Brazilian artists depicting scenes of conquest, royalty, and a budding Portuguese empire that was.
Next was our planned ascent to the famous Cristo Redentor statue on Corcovado. We headed to the Park Lage on its south side where we heard you can take a trail up a couple of hours which seemed awesome. The park was beautiful enough with little paths encircling it, a central visitor building, a couple castle-like towers, artificial ponds next to caves with stalactites, and a cozy little forest. Unfortunately, though it wasn’t on the website, we found out at the beginning of the trail that you’re supposed to purchase your hiking tickets before the hike, at some kiosk on the other side of the park and they don’t sell them at the top at all. So rather than the possibility of being faced with defeat after a long hike we decided to take the easy way out. We fueled up on chicken sandwiches and a cup of frozen Açaí (supposed to be an energy drink alternative) and took a bus towards the Corcovado park entrance.
Kindly enough, they did warn us at the ticket booth that visibility was low due to cloud coverage so heading up was at our own risk. I think tickets were R$51, and within 15 minutes we were on a small red tram up the mountain. Every now and again we got a brilliant view of the ocean and the basin formed by a couple of neighborhoods, but of course the tram moved just quickly enough for the view to evade my camera; I got one great photo… with an electricity pole right in the middle 🙂 At the top of a leisurely tram ride, there were still a couple flights of steep staircases to climb to come up on Cristo’s backside – that was our first introduction to the iconic statue. Ironically, the best view we had the entire day was of his behind; by the time we had circled the base of the statue and got just in position to take a couple of epic photos, the mist and fog rolled in (ahem, trolled in… hehe) and we were left with condensation on our clothes and a hazy view of both Christ’s face and the famous view down to the beach. I can’t blame the guy – hundreds, thousands of people crowding around every day… I would also crave a couple of solitary hours. We waited around for a while, but left content to have seen the statue at all. One thing that I’ve noticed myself while here (and a little bit in Argentina too) is the total domination of selfie-sticks! Especially here, where there is limited space for people to stand or move around; we haven’t suffered any injuries from wildly swinging selfie-sticks… yet…
With such a strong ending to our day and our sightseeing, we headed back to the hostel, tired but not entirely ready to leave. We got our overnight bus back to Sampa, determined to see this city of smiling people again; perhaps in the summer, when there’s more sunshine and much more beach time.