With Love From Rio
By Avril David.
My mission in heading to Rio was three-fold:
- Teach Belly Dance and English at an all-girls dance school
- Avoid being mugged
- Party like there ain't no tomorrow
And my mission for your 5 divine days in Rio encompasses the following: Learn samba and capoeira, a martial arts dance form created by slaves brought to Brazil. Make caipirinhas, Brazil's national cocktail. Dance every night. Order steak, rice, beans and a beer like you've been doing it your whole life. Be who you are and look the way you are (whatever that means) and still blend in if you want to.
For a more local feel and experience of Rio, you'll want to check out Santa Teresa, an artsy, bohemian colonial district with beautiful views of the city and GREAT restaurants. Nestled in the hills of Rio, Santa Teresa comes complete with cobblestone streets and quaint local bars that play live samba music on Wednesdays.
As a volunteer and teacher, I worked with Iko Poran, a non-profit organization where you can help local communities in Brazil. As volunteers, we got to stay for dirt cheap in Casa Aurea, a beautiful bed and breakfast and volunteer guest house in Santa Teresa.
If you're not on a volunteer vacation, no worries! Santa Teresa is full of bed and breakfasts like Casa Aurea. You'll be a cab or bus ride away from downtown and the beaches. Bar do Arnaudo is a signature Santa Teresa restaurant and has the most amazing carne de sol, a beef dish! Santa Teresa's other selling points are the art views and down-to-earth people who are definitely worth it.
If you'd rather stay closer to the beaches (who could blame you?) Ipanema and Copacabana are the best for hotels. Ipanema is a bit safer than Copacabana, but both places have a range of options from hostel to five star accomodations. Ipanema Plaza Hotel and Copacabana Palace are the main tourist hotels. Copacabana Palace is very pricey. You pay for the views. Ipanema Plaza Hotel isn't as posh but is lovely.
Here we go!
First things first. Hire a taxi. This ends up being cheaper than going through a company tour to see the main sights. The main sights are: Sugar Loaf, Pao de Azucar; Christ the Redeemer, Cristo on top of Corcovado; and Maracana Stadium, one of the world's largest soccer stadiums.
Make sure to spend a day exploring the beaches - Ipanema, Copacabana, Botafogo. There are lots to choose from. It's where you can eat, drink and people watch on the sand.
If you're around on a Sunday, check out the Ipanema Hippy Fair! Lots of arts and crafts, cool jewelry, food...and of course, hippies.
Hike up to the Christ Redeemer Statue on Corcovado. Hiking up to the Christ Redeemer Statue takes about 3 hours from Santa Teresa, and the views are worth it!
You pass by some 'favelas' (see below) on the way up though, so be careful with your camera and other valuables. Then, it's time to hit the beach. First choice - Ipanema!
Hangin' With The Locals
Winding through the streets of Rio de Janeiro on the way from the airport is an experience. Traffic seems to flow along efficiently without the regular use of turn signals. On the way to Santa Teresa, you'll catch your first glimpse of 'favelas' on the hillsides of the city. The small, red brick shacks line the hillsides in intricate patterns and stand out boldly against the famous backdrop of the Christ Redeemer Statue.
Rio's favelas are often located in close proximity to some of the wealthiest areas in the city. They are home to nearly 25 percent of Rio de Janeiro's inhabitants. Santa Teresa and Copacabana are prime examples. The favelas are usually built atop steep hillsides without government papers. They are low-income neighborhoods plagued by poor education, inadequate healthcare, high unemployment and unsanitary conditions.
Over the years, movies like the multi-award winning film, "City of God," which follows a young man in one of Rio's most dangerous favelas have brought international attention to the plight of these communities. Rio de Janeiro as a whole is often infamously referred to as one of the most dangerous cities in the world and this is largely due to the violence in these slums.
Despite the statistics where one in four people in Rio lives in a favela, most tourists who visit Rio will never step foot inside of one. Everyone will acknowledge the fact that violent crime is a major problem here. But many people who live in the favelas will tell you, they don't like the constant references to movies like "City of God," because they glorify the violence rather than the creativity and spirit of their communities.
The favelas were constructed by the hard work of the poorest of the poor. Many of these people have been negatively affected by a legacy of discriminatory policies, which prevented non-Portuguese Brazilians from being able to own legitimate property.
Favela communities are often very close knit. One Australian volunteer had her purse and cell phone taken by, quite sadly, an eleven year old boy on her walk out of the favela where she worked. The purse and phone were returned to her within a few days. The people in his community were incredibly embarrassed by what he had done, and it was easy to find the young culprit. Favelas are places where everyone knows each other and where many will tell you that protection is taken care of on the inside, not by government officials or the police...
It's time for some more beach bumming. This time it's Copacabana!
When you hang out at Rio's beaches, you'll definitely get a broader sense of what beauty can be. For instance, I will admit that I saw a fair number of floss thong bathing suits on men and women who may or may not have been older than both of my parents combined. And it was all good!
It really does seems to be all in the attitude that if you think you're hot and you think you've got it, then why not show off - you're the finest thing walking the Earth... or the finest thing walking the sands of Ipanema and Copacabana. Positive body image. Maybe Rio's on to something...
Also, be sure to check out one of the Brazilian trends of plastic surgery for pets. No joke! It's a popular procedure in Ipanema and Copacabana.
After a morning at the beach, take another hike, but this time up to Urca, the first mound before Sugarloaf mountain. It takes about 45 minutes.
From Urca, you can take the cable car to Sugarloaf. Try to time it so you can catch the sunset on top of Sugarloaf - spectacular views of the city.
Day Two is also a good day to see a soccer (futbol!) game at Maracana Stadium. Check online for ticket information during your stay or ask your hotel. Don't go alone and think of safety. You're in a huge, rowdy, possibly drunken crowd.
Soccer games in Brazil are complete with drunken singing of the home team's song, congo lines, fireworks and the timed popping of balloons.
It can be a ton of fun, but also lots of potential for trouble. Wear the right colors, seriously!
Spend the day in a rainforest - Tijuca National Forest. It's considered "the world's largest urban forest." This 8000 acre oasis was originally destroyed to make room for coffee and sugarcane farms. It took ten years to replant. King Don Pedro II ordered the reforestation in 1861.
You'll see lovely plant and wildlife. While we were there, we saw monkeys, a tarantula crossing the street (no joke!) and beautiful waterfalls. Most of it is paved though. So that means you can drive or bike up as well. It's definitely not a strenuous hike. There are plenty of rest stops and cafes tucked inside along the way as well.
Take the ferry from Centro (downtown Rio, the Carioca stop on the subway) to Niteroi. Niteroi is across the bay from Rio and is where the Contemporary Museum of Art is located. It looks like a space ship. The views from this side are absolutely incredible, and we were amazed that this place isn't raved about that much in traditional guidebooks.
The beaches are deserted and the water is much more calm than at Ipanema and Copacabana - just like a pool. You get a gorgeous view of Sugarloaf, Cristo, mountains, the skyline, all in one shot. The ferry ride (round trip) is as cheap as a bus, and it's only about 20 minutes.
Hang out or visit Santa Teresa. It's our favorite artsy,bohemian colonial district with beautiful views of the city and GREAT restaurants. Can't say it enough. It's on the way up to the Christ Redeemer Statue. If you're looking for crafts and souvenirs, it's definitely the place to check out. There are also lots of art galleries as well.
If you're around on a Wednesday, check out Bar Simplesmente for the live samba, cairpirinhas and "lingueca and aipim," which is sausage with onion and fried cassava. The whole neighborhood spills out into the street and dances until about 4am for this weekly event. The night gets started around 11pm or so.
It Must Be Love
Teaching belly dance and English at Ballet de Santa Teresa made me fall head over heels for Rio. It's a combination of so many things. Some of the girls I taught were from favela communities. Santa Teresa is in close proximity to about three favelas. Despite all they must have seen and experienced at such young ages, they were still very much little girls.
Sometimes, I'd see one of my girls from the dance school at the bus stop on her way home and her cheerful "Oi, Ticha!" made me feel like a rock star. In Rio, I'm mistaken for a local (Note: My family is Caribbean) and so is the volunteer from North Carolina with curly blonde hair. It's incredibly tempting to just pretend to be Brazilian, or more specifically a "Carioca," Rio native.
This is largely due to Brazil's rich cultural mix and its complex historical legacy of colonialism, slavery and post-WWII refugees/immigration. The resulting mix of cultures is something that you'll fall in love with. Santa Teresa has beautiful colonial style European houses and a large Catholic church (always full). On my walk to work at the Ballet, I (as have other volunteers) definitely saw Cadomble.
Cadomble is a traditional African religion often compared to voodoo. You'll sometimes see offerings on the sidewalk--cigarettes, a bottle of beer, a bowl of rice and...I'm not sure exactly what, and even a dead chicken. I'm not kidding.
One of the volunteers whose heritage is Japanese, African-American and Irish mentioned to me that he appears to simply be Brazilian in Santa Teresa. No one in Rio looks twice at him, whereas in the US and other countries, the question "what are you?" is a more common reaction to his unique looks...Rio is definitely a place with a warm cultural environment that's open, and fun and that's what makes it worth a 5-day visit or more. I fell in love with Rio and so will you...I mean, it's not serious or anything, but, we're talking.