Imagine the energy of LA. The high rises of New York. The sultry beaches of Miami. And the awe-inspiring landscape of Hawaii.
Rio de Janeiro truly lives up to the name of the “Marvelous City.” Those major U.S. cities are merely initial references to try and encapsulate the vibrant identity of what’s more commonly known as Rio. Yet it barely scratches the surface of this complex metropolis.
We came to Rio by way of Curitiba, the Green City, on our final 20+ hour bus ride in South America.
The winding motion of the bus gently woke me up. I opened my eyes to sunlight streaming through the trees along the highway. The bus, high up in the hills, began to make its descent. Suddenly, there was a clearing in the trees. Looking out the window, I took an audible gasp as the sprawling city of Rio revealed itself. The iconic Sugarloaf Mountain rose formidably in the sparkling Guanabara Bay. And what seemed to be millions of houses and favelas stretched out as far as the eye could see.
We took a cab to the picturesque hilltop neighborhood of Santa Teresa. We chose the artsy enclave over the beach in hopes of a more local experience. Our quaint guest house, Villa Leonar, was owned by a friendly English expat and his Brazilian girlfriend, Alessandra. The villa proved to be a welcome respite from the rest of the city’s frenetic pace. We especially enjoyed the tranquil patio out back offering beautiful panoramic views. Like Cape Town, South Africa, Rio’s landscape is truly something to behold, especially from an elevated viewpoint.
Santa Teresa is harder to get to than other areas in Rio, but its unique vibe makes it worth the effort.
On our first day, still weary from the bus travel, we stayed close to the villa. We explored the winding streets, taking in the crumbling mansions and colorful colonial buildings. The heat was incredibly intense. Shade from the green, leafy trees provided minimal relief. The yellow Santa Teresa tram roared by carrying locals and tourists alike – much like the trams we saw in Lisbon and San Francisco. The historic “bonde” is one of the oldest streetcar lines in the world. Built more than 100 years ago, it’s the only line from Rio’s original tram system still working.
That evening, we enjoyed an amazing dinner of traditional feijoada (Brazilian black bean stew) at local eatery, Simplesmente. Weary from the full day of wandering, we slowly lingered back to Villa Leonar. As instructed by the owner, we diligently followed the course of the tram tracks under the street lamps for safety reasons.
Before arriving in Brazil, we had been warned of Rio’s dangerous reputation.
In Bariloche, Argentina, two British women at our guesthouse told us we would most certainly get mugged at some point during our stay in Rio. Maybe it was the buzz from our Bohemia beers, but that first night, we felt completely safe. The atmosphere was carefree and convivial. A warm breeze filled the air, salsa music played, and people spilled out of corner bars drinking on the sidewalks. It was glorious.
The next day, we took a local bus (with air conditioning!) to the South Zone. Stepping off the bus, we were immediately greeted by the signature black and white pavement typically found in former Portuguese colonies. While only mid-morning, the Copacabana beach scene was in full swing.
Making our way down the two-mile boardwalk, we passed scantily clad women in Brazilian bikinis and groups gathered, ready to drink beer. On the beach, chiseled men in fitted swim briefs kicked around a soccer ball. Kids laughed and frolicked in the waves. As the sun rose through the clouds, it felt increasingly hotter by the minute.
Continuing on, we reached the beach made famous by the namesake song.
Red umbrellas dotted the landscape of Ipanema, creating an elegant, graphic aesthetic against the sparkling turquoise waters. At the western end of the beach, two mountains called the Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers), rose up from the water. In my head, the refrain of Antônio Carlos Jobim‘s song played in my head:
Tall and tan and young and lovely
The girl from Ipanema goes walking
And when she passes, each one she passes
As the palest person on the beach with the most clothing on, I was easily the farthest thing from The Girl From Ipanema. Still, it was nice to stroll the sand thinking about the charismatic magic of that mysterious woman who became the inspiration behind the beloved tune.
Beyond the beaches, we spent a day exploring the Centro.
Here, the architecture of sights enthralled us like the Museu Nacional De Belas Artes, Theatro Municipal and Biblioteca Nacional. Unfortunately, everything was closed due to Saint Sebastian Day, a national holiday celebrated in Rio. Thankfully, the Centro Cultural Banco do Brazil was open where we enjoyed a free exhibit on Dutch graphic artist, MC Escher. We also visited the São Bento Monastery, founded by Benedictine monks, with its incredibly ornate high altar. Upon entering, we were treated to an organ playing a powerful hymn. Magical.
Heading to Plaza Floriano for lunch, we found the normally bustling square eerily quiet. Across the empty outdoor cafes, we spotted a street vendor selling hot dogs out of his van. We ended up eating one of the most bizarre street food lunches. The hotdog came with peas, corn, raisins, a quail egg – and to top it all off, crunchy shoestring fries. We finished it off with a Guaraná, a bitter Brazilian soft drink made from the guarana fruit.
Eventually, we made it to the modern church of the holiday’s namesake.
The Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Sebastian is an incredible sight. We had seen the cone-shaped building surrounded by sleek skyscrapers from an overlook. Built in the 1960s, architect Edgar de Oliveira da Fonseca based its design on the style of Mayan pyramids. Only until we got closer did we realize how enormous it is – nearly 250 feet high. Inside, colorful stained-glass windows streamed light onto worshippers and tourists alike visiting for the holiday.
While we typically remained in Santa Teresa in the evenings, we enjoyed dinner a couple of nights in nearby Lapa. Near our guesthouse, we took the steep staircase down to this buzzing nightlife spot. Patrons from lively bars spilled out onto the streets. Music pumped from nearby clubs. Ice-cold beer flowed and impromptu dance sessions took place under the Roman-style Carioca Aqueduct.
After multiple days sightseeing, we gave into the heat and decided to relax at the villa for a while.
The humidity was like nothing we had experienced before and we found it difficult to walk around for too long. Even the 15 guests from Czech Republic who checked into our guest house were struggling – especially with the lack of air conditioning. We made the mistake of walking by one of their rooms with its door and windows wide open. Inside, a big, burly Czech man had surrendered to the humidity and was lying stark naked on top of his bed (!)
That was all the motivation we needed to escape to the hills of Santa Teresa again. Having been in Rio for nearly 2 weeks, we had our route down, closely following the tram tracks to an area that opened up to lots of shops and restaurants. Upon visiting the vacated mansion of a wealthy woman and patron of the arts, we were treated to an incredible view of Sugarloaf Mountain. Once again, it solidified that Rio was a very special place.
Unfortunately, our luck soon ran out.
In broad daylight, taking our usual route by the tram tracks, two men on a motorbike ascended the hill. We walked slowly from the heat and from an old knee injury of mine that had flared up. In hindsight, we were clearly a target. We also had a small backpack with us – the only time we had carried one. Others had warned us not to carry a purse or bag in Rio (and never wear jewelry.)
The motorbike stopped across from us. Within a few seconds, an individual came towards us – a young man, a boy really, no more than 18 years old. He approached with a massive knife and put his finger to his lips to signal our silence. My eyes glanced up and down the hill. Just seconds ago, there were people walking around, but now, the street was still – momentarily deserted.
With the knife pointing at us, he gestured with his hands. I watched helplessly as Brian handed over his backpack, merely holding two water bottles. The boy dug his hands into Brian’s shorts pockets and pulled out his wallet. Patting him down, he found the extra stash of money in his sock (another tourist tip.) The boy then removed Brian’s sunglasses from his face.
A taxi slowly drove by. I made eye contact with the driver who saw what was happening. Paralyzed with fear and worried about putting us in further danger, I remained still. I felt the driver could sense my fear but didn’t want to involve himself in any way. He continued driving, leaving us stranded.
The knife was now in front of me. The boy’s hands reached for the prescription sunglasses on my face. As they were removed, so too, was my vision. The blurred figure ran back to the motorbike and the two sped off. We stood in brief silence and disbelief before I broke down into tears, feeling utterly violated and vulnerable.
To be stripped of our possessions and personal freedom by a boy so impoverished to care, or think about the consequences, conveyed a sad reality.
For as beautiful a city as Rio is to visit, it’s also one of the most dangerous. Due to extreme class divisions, guns are easily accessible and government corruption is common. The U.S. shares a lot of similarities with Brazil. It made us realize if we’re not careful, the same thing could happen to our country.
The incident did not define our time in Rio, but it solidified the importance of feeling safe while traveling. It also gave us great insight into the city’s culture and social structure. Ironically, ten minutes after the incident took place, a police car drove by us. We flagged them down to relay what had happened. They were unfazed. They said they don’t even enter the favelas (shanty towns / slums) because of the prevalent possession of machine guns and assorted weapons by residents there. Rampant drug use is a problem as well.
Can an emerging economy succeed under these circumstances? How does it evolve? What is its future? We don’t know the answers. All we can say is that we have a better grasp of what life is like in the countries we visited in South America – the good, the bad, the ugly. Life beyond the tourist bubble.
We ended our trip on a high note – literally.
On our final day in Rio, we made our way up Corcovado mountain to visit El Cristo. Located in Tijuca National Park, the gorgeous Art Deco statue of Christ the Redeemer totally exceeds expectations. While most come for the view (which is truly spectacular), we couldn’t take our eyes off the amazing design and scale of the foreboding structure. The 100-foot figure with outstretched arms seemed to want to assure us that despite its flaws, Rio truly is a welcoming place.
We hit Ipanema Beach one last time with an ice cold Brazilian beer on the boardwalk and later, enjoyed the ubiquitous açai bowl. That evening, we mustered up the courage to take a taxi to Mangueira, home of the city’s oldest Samba School. Located in one of the poorest and most crime-ridden favelas in Rio, the villa owner cautioned us to have the taxi drive us right up to the door, remain inside and we’d be safe.
It took some time to relax, but being among the energetic crowds helped.
Against the backdrop of the school’s signature pink and green colors, amazing dancers took to the stage. Entrancing live music played and soon, the entire room felt electrifying. The school has won multiple times at the Rio Carnival Championships and is very active in the community, particularly with youth outreach and education initiatives.
Amidst the singing and dancing, we realized our time in South America was coming to an end. We had spent four months traveling through Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. Seeing, tasting and experiencing things we’d never experienced before. As we took in the festivities on that last night, anything bad that had happened seemed to fade away. We only felt positive feelings of our time abroad.
What an experience. What a way to feel alive.