Dramatically set amidst long beaches and dramatic cliffs that rise directly from the ocean, Rio de Janeiro is the original home of Portuguese Royalty in the New World and centuries later its still a city of immense international importance. It’s citizens have seen it all in recent years: a corrupt government, rampant poverty amid an intense economic crisis, the 2014 World Cup, and the 2016 Summer Olympics. Both of these international sporting spectacles have come under harsh scrutiny for their lack of planning and unfulfilled economic promise, igniting the city in opposition against establishment forces.
Yet behind the tough facade lies a city of six million brash and beautiful Brazilians who are eager to demonstrate their loving pride for la cidada maravilhosa: the marvelous city. Let’s roll through some of the best things to do in this traveler’s paradise.
Stefje and I arrived in Rio on Monday afternoon alongside Matt and Alex, two travelers we had met the week before in Paraty. By teaming up with two Australians, Chagi and Gillian, the six of us were able to escape the hubbub of a hostel and book a luxurious apartment with all the trappings just steps from the iconic Ipanema beach. After negotiating the long intra-city haul from the bus station, we found ourselves deposited right in the middle of all the action.
Ipanema is a bustling neighborhood, equipped with all the trappings of a modern city yet just steps from one of the country’s best beaches. It didn’t take us long to wander down to the sand the next day and take in our surroundings.
Here we found the social scene which makes Rio such an unforgettable destination. Every moment felt like the culmination of a hollywood-worthy movie, complete with multi-dimensional characters. Tanned and sculpted bodies angled themselves towards the sun’s rays, irresistible and persistent vendors hawked everything the heart or stomach desires, and tribes of Cariocas (locals from Rio) congregate for intense games of beach volleyball. Through all the intensity, it’s best to sit back, enjoy the refreshing taste of an acai and take in the palpable energy.
Of course on a sweltering day, a fresh young coconut is equally desirable.
Quickly the vortex of the beach sucked us in and we abided by its powers, keeping our eyes alert as the unbridled examples of humanity’s grandeur enveloped us. The passive sport of people watching is a full-time job here: curiosities constantly abound and you could spend a week posted up in one spot without ever getting bored.
Yet if the shock of humanity is too overwhelming, you can always down out the world by opting for a dip in the turbulent sea. Swimming at the beach in Ipanema is an intense full-body workout. A cross-current rips would-be swimmers left to right across the shallows, while a devilishly strong break entices would-be body surfers and tore the sunglasses right off Alex’s head.
Despite my best maneuvering above and below the crest of waves, the ocean still struck ferociously more than a few times, churning me about in its frothy water and ensuring utter exhaustion that night.
Yet as the sun began its slow descent into the Western sky, I made my way out for one last dip beyond the break. The sounds of the city washed away as I floated in utter relaxation. A dull pink twinge began materializing along the lower ring of the horizon, the surface of the water reflected it’s faint yellow light, and the nearby hills turned a glowing orange, offering a kaleidoscope of colors.
Viewed from any of the city’s many vantage points, sunset in Rio is a force of nature, a moment captured in time that seems impossible to escape. Ipanema ensured our first image didn’t disappoint.
An unexpected benefit of staying in Ipanema was stumbling across a block-wide farmer’s market just steps from our door. It’s difficult to overstate the chaos this represented: our eyes, ears, and noses were instantly overwhelmed upon sauntering in.
An incredible diversity of dirt cheap fruits and vegetables abounded, each wooden cart staffed by a loud and persistent salesperson. Around the outer ring of the plaza was a collection of trucks stocked with fresh fish, the pungent smell repelling all but the most insistent buyers.
Christ The Redeemer
The next day the six of us were off to pay homage to Cristo Redontor (Christ the Redeemer), that iconic statue which graces the front cover of travel guides and serves as the unofficial host to almost every tourist to enter Brazil. The bus ride there was our first taste of traffic in Rio, as the city’s clogged arteries are home to a never-ending stream of busses, taxis, and motorcycles. Yet we didn’t suffer from the hours of waiting we were told to brace ourselves for online, as arriving on a generic Wednesday outside of peak season cleared a painless path to the top.
From our first viewpoint, we got the panorama folks travel thousands of miles to glimpse: there was Rio in all of her resplendent glory. The curved bays and inlets of the Atlantic Ocean carved innumerable stretches of sand out of the continent’s land mass, each beach with with spectacular skyscrapers backed up right against the shore.
The focal point of our view was the most iconic of all those jagged peaks that divide the city into its various locales: the Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain).
Directly below was the crescent-shaped Botafogo Bay, where hundreds of sailboats lie anchored in wait.
Once at the top, we were graced by the presence of Jesus himself, in the form of this leviathan of a statue which faces out benevolently over the city, smiling with arms wide open at the people which he loves so much.
From here the view was somehow even more tremendous: Ipanema and Copacabana beaches were now in sight, along with Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, the wide placid body of water which serves as a quiet resting place amid the hubbub of the city.
From such a vantage point we could peer down on the city from a macro level, taking in the different neighborhoods yet constantly impressed by the scale of Rio’s brilliance. In time our elevation betrayed itself, as wisps of white clouds began rising up through the hillsides, obscuring the view of Jesus yet allowing some of the sunshine to continue bursting through, making for a surreal moment of beauty.
Next up on my agenda in Rio was to visit Copacabana beach, so on Friday we checked into a hostel just a few blocks from what might be the premier people watching destination in the world. Copacabana is populated by some of the world’s most svelte bodies: tattooed body builders occupy the training platforms on the beach’s wide promenade and g-strings disappear into backsides in the sand, developing an atmosphere of flirting and ogling.
The beachfront is ringed by a 4.5KM long chain of skyscrapers that would put even Miami’s South beach to shame. The world’s great hotel chains congregate here, offering balconies and penthouses with stunning views of the perpetual people parade.
The scale of humanity is staggering: tens of thousands congregate here, with more than double that number on weekends and up to a hundred thousand for New Year’s or Carnival.
There are enough sand soccer courts to host a fully-fledged tournament, and not a minute of daylight passes by without a plethora of games taking place. So without further ado, the most popular beach sports in Rio:
- Sand volleyball: There’s a reason why Brazil has won a Gold or Silver medal in every Olympic beach volleyball tournament since the sport’s inception in 1996: they play it, A LOT!
- Soccer volleyball: Like volleyball but without the use of your hands, this distinctly Brazilian sport is a dizzying, strategic foray into chest bumping, bicycle kicking and heading balls over the net.
- Paddleball: Played like doubles tennis in the sand, weekends and evenings can see whole leagues of eager players waiting for their turn to smack some tennis balls at friends.
- Keep ‘em up: One afternoon I paused at the water’s edge in Ipanema and through the salty spray I could see dozens of soccer balls rising into the sky. A walk towards the action yielded view of hundreds of people in groups of four, all in full concentration as the juggled soccer balls and tried to keep them off the sand.
The prospect of traveling slowly enables one to feel the rhythm of a destination soak into their skin; observing the same location from different angles aids the outsides in developing a deeper understanding of the people and their culture. A week within the tourism infrastructure of the beachside neighborhoods left me longing to feel another side of Rio de Janeiro, so last Monday Stefje and I utilized a unique AirBnb listing to move into a Brazilian favela.
Favelas are basically hillside slums, home to some of the city’s poorest residents and traditionally the drug dealers, gang leaders, and crack addicts of Rio. Originally initiated as black communities, Favelas were once inhabited by freed slaves who couldn’t find housing elsewhere in the urban cityscape. The neighborhoods are traditionally built into the steep hillsides of Rio, real estate undesirable for other citizens.
Yet despite the public opinion, favelas can be some of the safest places in Rio because of one word: community. Our Australian expat and AirBnb host met me at the elevator that leads up 10 floors to the neighborhood, a recent addition that saves residents from climbing hundreds of steps just to get home.
For the next week Stefje and I dipped our toes into the favela culture, capturing moments of life far removed from the upscale beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema. Three constants permeate through time and space to demonstrate life in a favela.
First off, the children here definitely don’t spend their time in front of cell phones and video games; from dawn to dusk the crooked alleyways, steep staircases, and makeshift concrete soccer fields are alive with children shouting and laughing as they constantly run around.
For older residents too, life in the favela is lived outdoors. That means smoking cigarettes, drinking beers, and talking with neighbors on stoops until late into the night.
The second constant is music: whether it’s traditional Brazilian samba or Rihanna, it’s hard to walk ten steps without being exposed to some kind of beat blasting through speakers and shaking the shoddily built houses at their foundation. The sounds only amplify on the weekends, when everyone seems ready to party and cold beers flow freely through the sticky summer night.
Finally, favelas seem to be constantly under construction. Men haul bags of concrete mix and sand through the streets and the sound of nails pounding into wooden planks is the first thing to wake people each morning. All of these houses are even more incredible to comprehend when you consider that every single material was brought up the steep hill by hand, putting a ton of sweat equity into the creation of these hovels.
For adventurous travelers hopping for a different experience from their time in Rio, I have to recommend visiting or staying in a favela. The conditions might be unsanitary, challenging, and at times downright frightening, but the appreciation of a divergent lifestyle will prove worth the hassle. All that sweating of walking uphill to return home everyday wasn't without it's advantages, either. Sunset was a sight to behold on a daily basis:
And for those eager enough to wake up in time for sunrise, the beauty is plentiful:
Sightseeing in Centro
On one of those typically oppressive Brazilian days, Stefje and I struck out to check out some of the city’s non-beach related sights. Our trail took us first to the city’s center, where poverty was juxtaposed starkly alongside the opulent architecture of the minimal theater and gaudy theater. Unlike any religious edifice you’ve ever seen, Rio’s cathedral appears as through it could unleash from its moorings and launch into the stratosphere at any moment.
The rocket engine shaped cone is hideous to the eye and wear an ugly charcoal grey, redeemed only by the impressive floor to ceiling stained glass windows that grace the interior of the facade.
Further along we came to the Arcos do Lapa (Arches of Lapa), an impressive string of bleached white arches stretching diagonally across one of the city’s main drags.
On the weekend these arches signify the entrance to the country’s biggest street party, but during a random weekday morning that just served as an unpleasant reminder of the city’s widening divide between rich and poor. In the shade thrown by the lowest level of arches was a community of street-dwellers, sleeping, gambling, and drinking the day away.
However, just ten minutes more of walking brought hordes of tourists back, as we approached La Escolera Selaron. A work of art gracing Rio’s urban facade born into existence by Chilean artist Jose Selaron, the stairway is a collection of tiles from around the world assembled into a striking and colorful mosaic.
Amidst the bright green and yellow of the Brazilian flag and the deep reds that Selaron loved, I uncovered places tiles celebrating places I’ve visited as disparate as San Francisco, Bolivia, and Capri, Italy.
As the crowd ebbed and flowed based on the arrival of overpowering tour groups, we lingered and explored, transporting ourselves from the city’s urban mindset to that of an outdoor art gallery.
Such feelings were further stoked after an uphill slog left us in one of Rio’s most atmospheric locales, the Santa Theresa neighborhood. Perched on an elevated plateau looking out across the city with views clear to the sea, Santa Theresa was once home to Rio’s social elite, with the ancient dilapidated hillsides mansions to prove it. These days it has evolved into a quieter tourism destination, perfect for sightseeing, shopping, or strolling on a relaxing day.
To go along with the old-school feel are a number of classic Brazilian restuarants, none better decorated with memorabilia than Bar do Miniero. Over cold beers, the patrons - myself included - cozy up to gigantic portions of traditional fare, including steak marinated in onions, fried calamari, and the famous feijoada (bean and pork stew).
We capped our day with a stroll through Campo de Santana park and the nearby Saara shopping district. Although the shopping street yielded some of the cheapest prices in all of Brazil, the highlight for me was the pack of wild-looking agoutis scampering about. Part hamster, part rat, part squirrel, they gathered around and made hilarious facial expressions while chomping down a spare head of cabbage.
Pão de Açúcar
We attempted to finish our jaunt through South America on a bang by ending in Rio. Similarly, Stefje and I decided to cap Rio on a high note by saving the best sight for last: the Pão de Açúcar. Rising forcefully directly from the ocean floor, the 1,300 meter high rock known as Sugarloaf offers the most magical 360 degree views of the city.
By timing our visit with twilight's witching hour, our last sunset in South America was a marvelous one. First a set of cable cars took us to Morro de Urca, which pales in height comparison to Sugarloaf yet still offering stunning wide panorama views from a brilliant vantage point.
Another steep cable car takes onlookers to the summit of the city, where clear skies offered stupendous views in all directions. To the left lay the long crescent curve of Copacabana, a revelation of beauty in the soft glow of the evening light.
On the other side a long and narrow bay was spanned by an immense bridge, with ships passing underneath from one port to the next and planes taking off from the airport strategically positioned on a peninsula.
From the lower platform the sun's descent was a glorious and inspiring sight. The hills in the West were filled with deep oranges and pinks as the glowing orb bade Rio farewell for the day, casting it's last rays of light across the top line of the city's skyscrapers. Along the wide horizon gorgeous colors seemed to appear by their own admonition, a series of light rising into the night sky and reflecting into the calm waters of Botafogo Bay.
Finally the sun's light faded from view and the city's lights came alive illuminating the central skyline, the high rises of Copacabana, long strings of beaches, and even the jumbled mess of favela apartments creeping up the mountains. If there's a better capstone to an epic trip, I don't know what it is. Cheers, Rio! Thanks for the memories.