[youtube=x-xu3IW_7d4][youtube=HyZpMgg9wDo] After eight months on the road we had finally reached one of those idyllic destinations - Rio de Janeiro. It felt strange after being completely wowed by the rest of South America, would Rio be a letdown? Knackered from our early morning flight we caught a few hours sleep in our hostel in one of Rio’s extremely exclusive areas, Ipanima. With a list as long as my arm we would be pressed to fit everything in, so after our morning nap we joined a trip to tour one of Rio’s equally as famous as it is dangerous neighbourhoods - the favela’s.
Being told these neighbourhoods are far too dangerous to visit by ourselves we chose a company that gives something back to these deprived communities. We were picked up from our hostel and as we were driven to Brasil’s largest favela Rosinio our guide gave us a very informative talk on favela life. It sounded very grim. The favela’s are located away from the beach areas and are scattered over the mountain sides surrounding Rio. Its quite a strange journey to Rosinio as our van passed the riches of classic Rio, onto the cities most exclusive neighbourhood slightly elevated in the mountain side and right next door to Rocinha. We stopped got out of the van and got a good panoramic view of one of Rios many sides. We were told not to take pictures of the houses just above as they would have snipers sitting on the roof tops. They are there not for tourists but for the drug runners scouting out police raids. We are told that any scooters we see without plates are employed by the drug runners as scouts and the drug lords themselves hardly live past 23 years age. We got the opportunity to stand on top of a house further into the favela, which gave us more views of the district. Then we had the opportunity to walk through the main street. Favela’s don’t actually have streets, just alley ways connecting the cramped jungle of stacked housing. As Rocinha is so big it actually has a street but this street only goes so far into the favela. There are also no street names, just alley numbers. We were told to take pictures very quickly and the guide looked quite worried. We walked through the main street which was full of shops, markets, street side bars and a decent size plaza. At this point I did start to think things aren’t maybe that tight around here. We saw a man wandering up the street swinging an AK-47 in his hand, while our guide was telling us about the unwritten rules in the favelas. There is in actual fact no crime in these neighbourhoods. Basically any crime committed in the favelas will result in harsh community punishments, only crime away and outside of the favelas is tolerated. Essentially this means that we were quite safe, although I did wonder by the look on our guides face as we walked through. Most people from the favelas also work and work for companies in Rio’s more affluent areas. I started to question the whole ‘poverty’ slant that was being drilled into our heads.
We were picked up again by our van and taken to another favela, one of the ‘upper market favela’s’. We saw the tag of ADA (Amigo’s do Amigo’s - Friends of Friends), meaning allegiance with the drug gangs and ensuring safety and protection for the favela. This is a common occurrence in Rio’s 200 or so favelas. Visiting this higher class favela gave us the opportunity to walk through the tight alley ways (as it was more relaxed) and visit the school the tour supports. We got the chance to meet the teachers and children and see what the project stands for - a chance to keep the children off the streets and away from the drug gangs. It was well equipped with pc’s connected to the internet. Internet by the way is everywhere in the favela’s, a government/telecoms initiative has piped free access around the favelas and they even contain internet cafes. It was a good visit and a great opportunity to get up and personal with a favela whilst learning about them.
The weather took a turn for the worst, not something you would associate with Rio but it absolutely hammered it down. So taking a rain check on things we went into the commercial / historical centre of Rio. It’s a different mix to what we have been used to. The commercial sector containing sizable modern buildings that you would expect from an international city but the colonial buildings seem sparser. They exist of course but not to the extent as seen in other South American cities. Usually the colonial architecture is the dominant aesthetic, but that’s not the case here. Although what is left is quite exquisite - the Portuguese library interior is as impressive as its exterior and situated near a grand plaza. Convent de Santo Antonio also impressed with its beautiful exterior and elaborately decorated interiors. The modern Metropolitan Cathedral really impressed us presenting new way to build houses of worship. Modernity crossed with tradition, my first impressions were very negative but the colossal structure soon won me over. We also took the funicular up to the suburb of Santa Teresa. With the weather quite bad it seemed this little neighbourhood wasn’t running as usual which is a shame because it’s easy to see its colonial charm, laid back character and vibrant undertones. It would make an excellent stroll in fine weather. We returned to coastal Rio and attended a local samba school for the second night running before retiring to our hostel and having a few drinks out in Ipanima with others from our abode.
With vastly improved weather conditions we got ourselves onto one of the trips which was at the top of our list - hand gliding over Rio de Janeiro. After a transfer and some form filling we were transported up into Parque Nacional da Tijuca (sub tropical rainforest) and up to the top of Pedra Bonita (510m). Laid before us were views of favela’s either side, green subtropics below ending with skyscrapers and Rio’s magnificent beaches. On the journey up I found myself again thinking ‘what am I doing?’ As we watched the first person run off the runway and saw how much the hand glider struggled to keep flight I really thought - what am I doing?!! I went through the drills with my pilot and had a couple of practice runs. Then it was my turn. After watching a few people take flight I wasn’t as worried but that still doesn’t mean anything when you stand on the runway, strapped to the hand glider and all you can see is a drop three metres away. I heard the signal from my pilot ‘run hard!’ So I shut my eyes and ran hard until my leg coordination seemed to fail me. It was ok mind, we had gotten enough speed up and before I knew it we was gliding over Rio. The flight was spectacular. Slick and smooth we glided over the mountains forest turning through the wind currents. The views were superb with most of Rio’s landmarks in sight. After a few minutes we glided towards the beach, over the top of the skyscrapers and out over the sea. The pilot turned the hand glider around and we landed running onto the beach. One of the experiences of my life!
During the afternoon we tackled Rio’s struggling transport system to Cerro Cristo Redena (Mountain of Christ the redeemer). We took the funicular up to the peak and were greeted with amazing panoramic views of Rio. It was here that I knew Rio is truly a jetsetters destination. Parabola shaped tree covered islands, sky scraper’d horizons leading to perfect city beaches, all surrounded by wondrous, captivating, natural harbours. We got to see sunset and the chance to view Rio in a different light. Oh yeah and there was Christ himself - icing on the cake!
As it was Friday and we’re in Rio - that means it’s Lappa night! Lappa is a poorer neighbourhood which turns into a street party at the weekend. Bars and clubs open doors and windows, street side sellers provide the masses whilst keeping an eye out for the police (they shouldn’t really be there), live carnival samba is banged out from under Lappa’s famous arches and the atmosphere is lively. The variety of music, live and recorded is impressive but it’s not all about giving yourself a headache, quieter more relaxed bars are as easy to find as the crowded samba infested streets.
With a glorious spring day on our hands we headed straight over to another one of Rio’s iconic landmarks, namely Sugar loaf Mountain. Sitting perfectly on one of Rio’s peninsulas it really tests the imagination as to how this beautiful rock was ever formed. The cable car up skips over two other mountains before it docks on sugar loaf. The view from the viewing platforms, were incredible. Numerous different viewpoints of Rio, but this time from the seas perspective. It was now time for us to visit another of Rio’s iconic destinations, the jetsetters haven of Copacabana. Wide, fine golden sands, volleyball courts, football pitches, a wide array of makeshift bars and the classic Brasilian beach seller - those who trawl the beaches selling a wide array of, well everything! We stopped and got ourselves a couple of beers and did exactly what every beach in Brasil and especially Rio demands, people watch! Amongst the sun worshippers, surfers and the active contingent, the best ‘viewing’ came from three girls who sat next to us. Prepared they had a bucket of water and a decent supply of hair removal cream! We watched them spread cream on the usual female hair removal areas but they also liberally applied around the areas of their moustaches and belly buttons. They then sat and waited for five minutes, at which point the bucket of water was used to wash off the cream. All in the afternoon sun of one of the classiest beaches on the planet! I was pretty impressed I have say!
We ended up watching the first half of some pretty serious beach football and then looked at the very good sand sculptures amongst the runners, cyclists and skaters we passed on the way to another one of Rio’s premier beaches, Ipenima. With similar city perfect attributes we watched some beach volleyball while we waited for one of the most stunning sunsets I have ever seen. We people watched again as another perfect South American sun disappeared behind one of Rio’s finely formed “Sugar Loaf’ mountains. We spend the night out in Copacabana with friends who we had met way up in Manaus. Rolling out of the club at 7am ended up giving us a treat. Copacabana is the place to see Sun rise! Absolutely amazing and a fine way to end a great night out.
After just a couple of hours sleep we rushed over to the heliport to go all out and take a scenic flight. The experience was as expected, quite simply amazing. It was my first helicopter flight so that was an experience in its self. It was another glorious day and perfect for the flight. The route would see us flight passed Ipanima beach, Copacabana, Sugar Loaf Mountain, Maracana Stadium and Cristo Redena.
The afternoon would see us get together with people from the hostel and make our way over to the Maracana (world’s biggest football stadium) to get a taste of Brasils own colossal shrine to the beautiful game. We watched local side Fluminense win a much needed game (they were in the depths of the league) to help their survival. Although nowhere near full, the Brasilian fans made it feel full. Football and samba altogether made for a 90 minute rumba! The whole crowd sung and danced along to the beating drums making a football atmosphere to die for! Watch Video
With our time in Rio nearly up we had one last treat in store for us, a stay overnight in a favela. We were told it is possible to organise a stay through a contact with the tour company we went with a few days ago.
After enjoying another fix from Rio’s fine juice bars (they are on every corner!) of acai, banana con aveia, coxhena’s and other fine savouries. (I knew I had tried the countries best and was pretty pleased about it!) We gathered our things and got a bus to the entry to the favela. After a short taxi ride into the favela we met the homestay organiser at the small sq in the smaller ‘upmarket’ favela we visited on our first trip. We were taken deep into the allied network of the favela and met our homestay hostess. We dropped our bags and got acquainted with our new surroundings. As it was a Sunday night we were offered the chance to attend a favela funk night. We jumped at the chance as we had heard a lot about them through organised tours but we would get the chance to go the local way!! We met our 17 year old chaperone and her friends at the local sq and got mini vans to the venue. Set deep in a neighbouring favela we que’d up to enter the warehouse which was pumping out Brasilian funk. We got a couple of drinks and watched the locals do what they do. We were the only tourists present so it gave us a completely authentic experience. As the warehouse became packed out most people would stand around the fringes listening, talking and some watching the gangs of dancers in the middle on the floor. Their dancing was really good and things in the end turned into group dance off’s Watch Video
. Two lines of dancers facing each other trade dance move blows, highly entertaining! With the males doing all the work the females watched and looked pretty. It really was a superb experience and another example that things aren’t quite as dangerous here as some would have you believe. We returned back to our favela on the back of a couple of moto taxi’s.
Te next morning we were given a guided tour of the local area of the favela by one of our homestay neighbours. We were taken around a few of the alley ways and then up some ladders to the top of one of the houses for an excellent panoramic view of the area. Interestingly a tree lined river flows through the middle of this place and with a backdrop of one of Rio’s surrounding mountains, it is quite a tranquil place. Ok the houses aren’t particularly anything to look at, cramped and built on top of each other linked together by very tight alleyways. But inside it’s a different story, they are actually nice and full of mod cons. Widescreen Televisions, computers, modern kitchens, bathrooms etc. It would of been great to be able to hang around for longer and find out more about how these places really work. The locals are really friendly and would answer any questions that we were asking. We had another decent breakfast from our extremely friendly and accommodating hostess and started to get ourselves ready to leave Rio.
One of the things I have certainly learnt is that there is certainly a divide between rich and poor which is very striking. But I do have to say I’ve seen much poorer settlements in other countries in South America and even more so in primitive parts of Asia and Africa. There is infrastructure for a start, running water, an abundance of shops, buses, electricity and even mobile phones. It seems that favelas are a poor part of town in a rich country, which is what Brasil is.
As our Rio experience draws to a close it is a place where we could have easily spent longer. But then again that is true of the majority of other places we have seen. Rio de Janeiro has been a trip highlight with everything from its sophisticated sides, slum sides and fun sides. The best city beaches I have ever experienced and whole host of other attributes make this city, truly an iconic jetsetters destination.
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