Rio is a great city to discover that your camera's zoom works great as a pervin' lens: the beautiful city attracts the beautiful people.
Rio de Janeiro - the January River - was the city on the tour I was the least excited about. The urbanist in me was fascinated by the megacity of São Paulo, the amateur architecture enthusiast was dazzled by piles of Brasília, and the laid-back tourist wanting wine, food and song with his friends was looking forward to the gentle Buenos Aires. But sun, beaches, tans and gym bunnies? That's not what makes it onto my itineraries. However, Rio is a must-do, and I was excited to see the undeniably striking topography, and to see Brazil's take on slums with a favela our.
Rio is the point where Rachel Klem and Darrin Wayne Maurer met up with Russ and me for the second half of the adventure. From the moment our beautiful host showed us into our beautiful flat with its beautiful view, the mood for the weekend was set; I was helpless against the charms of the Marvelous City.
Rio de Janeiro's beauty cannot be oversold. It's set around the mouth of a large bay, too big to see across, giving it the feel of an island city. Improbably steep mountains jut out from the ocean, creating an undulating coastline of peaks and valleys, around and across which the city is set, encirlced by white sandy beaches. Everywhere you go in the city you are aware of elevation and sea. The architecture is pleasant, but innocuous; there is little to excite you, but nothing to offend you either - the architecture takes a backseat to the setting. I lived in San Francisco, and have been to Sydney and Seattle, all of which are gorgeous cities in their own right, but the scale and spectacle of Rio put them in its shadow.
The three happiest things I found out about Rio were that it's not always sunny, it's very easy for a vegetarian to have great food, and the beaches and their culture are not the dominant factor in the city's character. Perhaps it's because they are so copious, but they are given over to myriad activities and uses, not just for tanning the beautiful. There is so much going on away from the beaches, though, that we actually spent next to no time at them. We stayed in Ipanema, which is host to one of Rio's two famous beaches (the other is its neighbour, Copacabana), but which had a surprisingly un-beachy, if not bohemian, atmosphere.
The area is packed with bars and restaurants, and though the businesses nearest the beach were obviously bent towards tourists, you saw mostly locals going about their lives, walking their dogs, taking a lunch break, carrying supplies home after a show. It's not showy or glossy or narcissistic; it's vibrant, but relaxed and satisfied, somewhere that I could imagine living. That's not something I often say about a beach city. While I can't colour all of Rio shades of Ipanema, the city is absent of São Paulo's fear and tension, and much of the rest of the city we saw had the agreeable feel of Ipanema; even the favelas had an alegria de viver about them. Cariocas, as Rio's inhabitants are called, know what a lucky place they call home.
Sugarloaf Mountain sits at the mouth of Rio's harbour...
..and is a rickety ride up two separate cable cars...
...with one of Earth's most stunning urban views as your reward at the top.
Flying out, you can see the shape of Rio. Ipanema is the beach on the lower left; Copacabana is to its right; Sugarloaf to the right of that; and the urban core above that is downtown Rio de Janeiro, where the city was founded.
Heading out on our favela (slum) tour, we started to ascend the hills and caught a view looking down on Rio. Paradoxically, in many Latin American cities, the favelas are high above the cities, commanding the best views. This is a hangover from the days of poor transportation, when the only viable way to get home was to walk. Much like New York's prewar walk-ups, the higher up you went, the cheaper it got.
The favelas spread up an over Rio's hills, built on any incline that could possibly support a home.
Though obviously poor, there is no destitution like you see in India's slums. Many of India's normal streets and homes are in far worse shape than Brazil's favelas. This was not always the case; up until several years before the World Cup, Rio's slums were notorious ganglands. In preparation for the World Cup in 2014, and Olympics in 2016, Rio began pacifying its favelas, routing out the druglords, bringing a sense of peace, and installing running water and electricity.
Around 80% of Rio's favelas are now "pacified", and safe enough to walk around...
...and have a drink in.
The view from our flat was one of the views, of Christ the Redeemer - when it broke through the clouds, that is.
A ten-minute stroll away was the incomparable Ipanema beach.
Rio has a great bar scene, where we had the most fun on the trip. Even Rachel got oodles of attention!
This will always be known as the trip where Russ spilled and I did not!
But despite all our best efforts, not everything was a success; the man just outside Rachel's room's window...
...is the one that got away...
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