La Cidade Marvilhosa

3 03 2009

A short bus ride later we had arrived in Rio, or as the 10 million locals call it – Cidade Marvilhosa. First appearances seemed to support this: huge skyscrapers merged with jungle clad mountains, and were surrounded by golden stretches of sand and cool turquoise waters. Some of the world’s most iconic landmarks and scenery can be found here: the impressive Sugar Loaf Mountain, the famous Copacabana and Ipanema beaches and the spectacular Christ Redeemer, standing on top of Corcovado Mountain, ever watching over the city.

On January 1st 1502, a Portuguese Captain, Andre Goncalves, steered his craft into Guanabara Bay, thinking he was heading up the mouth of a great river. The City takes its name from this event – Rio de Janeiro means the ‘River of January’. When gold was found in nearby Minas Gerais in the 1690’s, the city became the epicentre for the gold trade, and the sugar cane economy bought yet more wealth into Rio. By the 18th Century, the majority of Rio’s inhabitants were African Slaves, and almost nothing in the city remained untouched from their influence. This can still be seen today, in the music, cults and cuisine.

In March 1808, Dom Joao VI of Portugal became so taken with the city, that he proclaimed it “The United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves, of this side and the far side and the Guinea Coast of Africa”. Along with this mouthful of a title, Dom Joao’s reign also saw the introduction of paved and lit streets. With the boom of the coffee trade in the area, the late nineteenth century saw Rio start to develop as a modern city: trams and trains were replaced with automobiles, the first sewer system was introduced, and a tunnel was opened through the mountains, paving the way to Copacabana and beyond.

During the 1930’s, Rio enjoyed a reputation as home to the first generation of jet setters and Hollywood glamour filled the air. This in tow brought with it a wave of modernisation that saw Rio transformed into the city that exists today.

The only thing that seemed to be lacking on first impressions was the quality of hostels. There are so many hostels in the city, and the nice ones are far and few between. Having been unprepared, we ended up spending our first night in a not so nice one, which consisted of another Rio staple – rooms that sleep around 30 people, complete with three tier bunk beds! These are definitely not advisable after a few caipirinhas, or if you have a tendency to sleepwalk, or suffer from vertigo. Also air conditioning was at a premium, so sleeping on a third tier bunk, like I ended up having to, having drawn the short straw, was like sleeping inside a dead camel left out in the desert sun – not pleasant!

Fortunately it was only for one night, and we checked into a lovely hostel for the duration of our time. The Mango Tree was recommended to us by Jane, and had a lovely bar outside in the garden, a nice social atmosphere, hammocks and most importantly normal size bunk beds with fans and air conditioning! Another blessing was the lack of exposed wiring, plumbing and general lack of severe subsidence we had seen in some hostels…

Our first two days were spent just walking around and chilling out on Ipanema Beach. I would definitely recommend staying near Ipanema, as it’s generally a bit safer, the hostels are nicer and it’s a little more relaxed.

The beach itself is split into a number of sections, each allocated a number and defined by the clientele that frequent it. We stayed in the family section, having heard tales of some of the other areas…

The first night in Rio, we went out for drinks in nearby Leblon, one of the more affluent and trendy areas in the city. We also had our first food by the kilo meal; something I’ve only ever heard of in Brazil. Similar to a buffet layout, but your plate gets weighed at the end and you get charged by the kilo. I found it particularly hard to be restrained and to remember that it wasn’t actually an all you can eat buffet.

When we checked into the Mango Tree the next day, we met another couple from the UK; Steve and Iola. As we got talking we discovered that Steve had set up a company whilst at home, along with a friend, called the Tea Appreciation Society. ( They had designed some T-Shirts, one of which was for the clothing company howies, who Claire works for. Another reminder that it’s a small world we live in! With time being of the essence, we decided to skip the beach for a few days and get about exploring the city.

We began at the Praca XV de Novembro, the former hub of Rio’s social and political life. Today its home to one of Rio’s oldest markets, on Thursday and Fridays, were its stalls are packed with traditional food, clothes and handicrafts. We then visited the Paco Imperial; these has served many purposes, from the Governor’s Palace, the Headquarters of the Portuguese Government in Brazil, and later the Department of Post and Telegraph. It was also here, on May 13th 1888, that Princess Isabel proclaimed the end of slavery in Brazil. Today it’s a popular meeting point and library.

We took a trip towards Rua Uruguaiana, whwere we found a concentration of shops known as Saara. Traditionally the cheapest place to shop, it was originally the centre for the Jewish and Arab Merchants, who moved into the area after a ban prohibiting their residence within the city centre was lifted in the eighteenth century. In the narrow maze of streets, you can find anything and everything.

From here we headed to Largo de Carioca, which is home to the Igreja e Convento de Santo Antonio; the oldest church in Rio, built between 1608 and 1620.  Rising up behind the church, is the unmistakable shape of the Nova Catedral. Standing at 83m high, the cathedral resembles some futuristic tepee. Built between 1964 and 1976, it can hold up to 25,000 people, and regardless of what you may think of it, is an incredible feat of engineering. The space inside is enhanced by the lack of supporting columns; four huge stain glassed windows dominate your attention, each measuring 20m by 60m. Its like no other building I have ever seen, particularly any other Cathedral.

Getting around Rio is very easy; there a large number of buses and subways, and you can buy tickets that combine the two. The day next day we headed across to another of Rio’s bairros: Santa Teresa. As it clings to the side of the hill, it necessary to catch the tram up to top, winding upwards, through its labyrinth of cobbled streets and early nineteenth century mansions and walled gardens. You also cross over the mid eighteenth century Arcos da Lapa, a monumental Roman style aqueduct.

Whilst there isn’t a huge amount to see in the area, the views over the city are spectacular, and there is a rather bohemian atmosphere to the place. Its home to many of the city’s artists and intellectuals, and the streets are full of galleries and little boutiques. There are also a number of good café’s and restaurants, one of which we found ourselves, passing the afternoon, drinking some cold local beers, eating some local snacks, and taking in some live jazz.

Rio’s favelas cling precariously to the hillsides, no matter where you are in the city, their prescence can always be noticed. Whilst not exclusive to the capital, the appearance of the slums seems harsher, in stark contrast to the glitz and beauty that surround them. In no other city have I seen such an explicit reminder of the divide between the rich and poor.

Every Friday in the area of Lapa is a massive street party. The street is lined with clubs and bars, and people spill out onto the streets and dance the night away to the live samba bands that play under the arches of the aqueduct. We decided to go that night with a group from the hostel. Whilst it’s definitely something that needs to be seen and experienced, its worth keeping your wits about you and remembering the old mantra, of safety in numbers. We had great fun dancing in the streets, but it quickly took a turn for the worse when a few locals started on one backpacker near us, and I found myself grabbed round the neck by a street seller for refusing to purchase some sweets from him. I’ll never forget the desperation in his eyes, as he demanded the equivalent of 10p of me. This was the point we decided it was time call it a night.

With only a few days left we decided to have a little splurge and treat ourselves; so we booked to go and do something we had always wanted to do; hangliding over the city! We went with Jane and her boyfriend, and it was a whirlwind experience. We got picked up early in the morning and taken over to the base of the mountain, a coupe of beaches round from where we staying. After a quick safety talk and we had signed our lives away, we barely had time to stare, wide eyed, up at top of the mountain that we would be running off, before we found ourselves in the car on the way up. It wasn’t until we saw the huge colourful gliders, and the 2 metre ledge jutting out of the mountain top did it sink in what we were about to do.

Helmets on and safety harnesses in place, we had small amount of time to practice our run. My instructor told me to place my arm around him, stare at the horizon, and keep running. On no account must I stop… simple huh! Then we were strapped into the glider, my hands clutching the cold metal bar, and my eyes focuses on the huge drop in front of me. I got the news that I would be first up… I’m not sure what it worse. Either way I couldn’t back out now, not with everyone watching. 3…2….1…

I ran as fast as I could, my feet pounding the hard gravel beneath me, my eyes not moving from the distant line of the horizon, topping the vast blue sea in front of me. Suddenly I looked down, my legs still moving, but no longer was there any ground beneath me, only my shadow metres below, laughing up at me, as I glided across the Rio sky. The feeling was immense – fear and adrenalin quickly turned into euphoria and a strange feeling of tranquillity as if I had done this before. The beach stretched out below me, the white crest of the waves playing below me. I could see roof top swimming pools with Rio’s elite taking a morning dip, cars moving below like ants, and the City’s great landmarks everywhere I turned. At one point, a flock of birds in V formation flew below me, as the thermals arising from the city, helped me soar higher and higher. Eventually we could fly no more, and it was time to feel the ground beneath my feet once again. We circled around and glided down onto the makeshift runway on the beach, my legs turning to jelly and struggling to gain traction as I drifted to the ground. I stood there, watching up as the others finished their peter pan moments and came back down to earth to join more.

We spent the rest of the day on the beach, sampling the delights on offer and soaking up what we had just experienced. The choice of food on the beach is unreal; no matter what you fancy from pizza, brownies, or even an Indian, it can be found from one of the street vendors roaming up and down.

There were also staggeringly high waves that afternoon, and still feeling a tad invincible I swam out to play. At around double overhead (12ft) these weren’t what you’d see on the average day in Aberystwyth. I swam into them, feeling their power take me back into the beach, before ducking under and back out again. I did this a number of times, before getting a tad too cocky and trying to body surf the wave too far: unable to duck back under, I found myself being dragged across the sandy beach, the fine sand leaving a friction burn the size of a two pence piece on my spine.

As I walked back onto the beach, a little dazed and my head full of seawater, I felt a warm trickle of blood drip down my back. I headed up the bar hoping to get a napkin to wipe it with. Instead I was told to turn around, which unwittingly I agreed to do, only to feel to sharp shearing burn as the vendor poured a large measure of Rio’s finest cachaça in an effort to sterilise my wound: a tad unconventional, but effective none the less.

Before we knew it, it was our penultimate day away before flying back to blight and reality. The world of 9-5 was just around the corner… We still had a few things left to tick off though before we had to face all that, so we headed back to Lapa: this time to visit the famous Lapa steps.

The Lapa Steps, are on of Rio’s lesser known landmarks, and are the brainchild of one man, a Chilean artist called Selaron. He came to Brazil in 1983 and fell in love wit the place, and a few years later, began work on the steps, as a tribute to his adopted country.

Originally the 215 steps were covered in blue, green, and yellow tiles, the colours of the Brazilian flag. However, now they are constantly changing, as people from every corner of the globe send in their contributions. Selaron spends every day tending to the steps, and laying the new tiles down.

The tiled stairway has graced the cover of everything from National Geographic to Playboy, it has even been in a number of music videos. Selaron calls the steps his ‘great madness’ and will not seize work on his piece until the day he dies.

From here, we headed up the last sight on our list, and one of the most famous: the statue of Christ Redeemer. It can only be reached by bus up Corcovado, and then tourist tram or bus to the top. We went on a tour that took us to a selection of viewpoints, thus affording us the opportunity to take some fantastic photos of the Rio’s skyline. From the top you can see the whole city, and standing at over 30m high, the whole city can see the statue which was finished in 1931.

That evening we treated ourselves to a fantastic meal at Zuka, a Brazilian fusion restaurant. It was the last supper on our South American adventure, that saw us take in everything: from the snow capped peaks of Patagonia to the mystical waters of the Amazon, and everything in between.

We checked out the next day; settling the bill with the last change we had, leaving not a penny in our account. There was still time for last drama though: the bus taking myself (Claire was booked on a later flight unfortunately) to the airport was very late, and we had to sprint down Ipanema to catch it as it shot past the stop I was waiting at, fortunately pulling in 100 metres down the road. As we reached it, in a hurry to quickly get the bags in the bus, I completely failed to see the old gentlemen cycling past, and as I swung my bag off my shoulders, I took him cleanly out: his bike flying onto the sand, and leaving him in a heap on the floor. I barely had time to apologise in broken Portuguese and attempt to help him up, before the bus driver shouted at me that he was leaving. I had no choice but to board, leaving my last memory of the city, of a crowd of angry locals raising their fists and shouted at me in a language I still had yet to get to grips with. I turned to wave out of the window at a rather wide eyed Claire, surrounded by the speedo clad vigilantes, as I headed out towards my final destination – the UK.