Posted by: robinson2000 | August 1, 2011

On the seventh day, God created Rio.

25th – 31st July

Brazilians say: God made the world in six days; the seventh he devoted to Rio. Rio de Janeiro is best known for the curving Copacabana beach, for Ipanema – home to the girl and beautiful sunsets, and for its swirling, reverberating, joyous Carnival. It is an incredible city, tucked between the tumbling wooded mountains and the crystal clear deep blue sea with towering peaks dotted around the coastline. First and foremost this is a city dedicated to leisure; sport and music rule, as a day on the beach is usually followed by an evening of dance and samba.

We arrived in Rio after a monotonous 23 hour bus ride in the middle of Rio’s winter, which means the temperature is a comfortable 25 – 30 degrees and if it gets too hot then you can cool off in the sea. Due to the popular demand for a beachside hostel we ended up with four nights in Lemon Spirit Hostel followed by two nights in Mango Tree Hostel, both of which were one block from Ipanema beach. The three main beaches of Rio are Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon, all of which are quite clean and covered in soft sand. A permanent cycle track runs all the way along the three beaches and is a popular for roller-skating and cycling. In fact it’s very similar to parts of California where many residents spent time working out on the gym equipment, playing beach volleyball and generally exercising along the seafront.

The exceptionally beautiful women of Brazil, who wear very skimpy swimwear, meant that we usually spent the morning on the beach before heading out in the afternoon to soak up some sites. A popular attraction is a trip up Pao de Acucar (Sugar Loaf mountain), which is a massive volcanic cone at the entrance of the bay that soars to 396 metres. To reach the peak, you can either take two cable cars or you can walk through the forest to Morro de Urca and take just one cable car. We opted for the walk and after missing the turnoff to the path, eventually found the steep path leading up the side of the mountain. It was quite a steep walk, especially wearing only flip-flops so we ended up walking up barefoot through the forest trying to avoid any creepy crawlies, including the huge red ants that marched through the undergrowth. The views from the summit were quite incredible as you could see the whole of Rio stretched out below with planes taking off and helicopters buzzing about. The other peak worth reaching is Corcovado, a 710 metre high peak where the statue of Christ the Redeemer sits. To reach this superb view you can either take a taxi or the popular option of the cog railway. After a couple of hours wait, we finally boarded the slow-moving train and reached the peak just after sunset to see the impressive 32 metre high statue of Christ the Redeemer.

The favelas of Rio have a fearsome reputation as being some of the most dangerous places in South America and in some parts this is true, but the majority of the favelas are quite safe to visit. We took a trip with a company that aims to show visitors a different side of the favelas. They also donate some of the money to community projects to help out some of the kids that grow up there. Most people perceive favelas as lawless places, run by drug lords, but this dark side has mostly been exaggerated by the media. Some 20% of Rio’s population live in favelas and they are considered the poorest areas of the city. They are built on hillsides overlooking Rio that give some of the best views in the city. You can also see the dramatic contrast between the wealthy and the poor as the favelas sit right next to some of the most expensive real estate in Rio. Unfortunately most of the favelas are run by drug gangs, the three main gangs in the city being Red Command, Friends of Friends and Pure Third Command. In general the gangs just want to go about their business as quietly as possible and sell drugs. This means that the residents of the favelas live by a code whereby they are not allowed to attract any unwelcome attention from the police, which will in turn cause problems for the drug gangs. This is the only reason we were able to enter the favela safely as mugging a tourist/visitor would certainly attract the police. Obviously outside of the favelas you’re considered fair game, but inside you’re given a certain amount of protection by the fear instilled into the population from the gangs. The favelas are certainly no-go areas for the police and in most cases the entrance to the favela has been barricaded and is guarded by a couple of guys with automatics. We got taken to the largest favela in Rio with a population of nearly 100,000. Inside the favela was a main road with four streets leading off of it, a hospital, community centre, shops, banks and even its own TV station. In recent years the government has made heavy investments into the areas and the results could be seen everywhere. One of the government’s recent initiatives is to “pacify” some of the favelas by removing the gangs and installing a local police force. The government had targeted this particular favela which meant the entrance was heavily guarded and patrolled. As we entered we could see young kids on radios, keeping an eye out for trouble and a few of them were carrying handguns and automatic rifles. Unfortunately, the kids who live in the favelas can earn better money working for the gangs than making an honest buck in the city. Once we were inside the gang members kept a very low profile and it felt like a normal place but we weren’t allowed to take photos of anyone. To be honest the atmosphere wasn’t intimidating in the slightest. There were very few people carrying guns and we were able to wander around for a bit and meet some of the residents. The poverty wasn’t even that bad when I compare it to parts of India or Cambodia as most of the houses had running water, electricity and internet. I got chatting to guy who after offering me cocaine wanted to know if there were any Italian women in our group.

One of the highlights of Rio was a trip to a football match to see Rio’s Vasco da Gama play Bahia in a first division league match. Our appetites had been wetted the night before as we watched an incredible game featuring Rio’s Flamengo vs Santos. Flamengo were 3-0 down after 20 minutes but miraculously managed to pull it back to 3-3 at half time. Santos took the lead 4-3 just after the break and then Flamengo’s Ronaldinho scored two goals to win the match 5-4. We travelled to the stadium with a group of other travellers and a guide that scalped the tickets for us. The traffic was a nightmare as we slowly crawled to the stadium and arrived at 7pm for the 7.30pm kick-off.  We stood outside the stadium for a while waiting for the guide to get hold of some tickets and soaked up the lively atmosphere, whilst the huge crowds surged into the ground. Unlike English stadia, there was only one small entrance to the ground and it was moving incredibly slowly as the beefed-up, heavily armed police gave everyone a thorough pat down. It took absolutely ages to enter the stadium and the first half was virtually over by the time we had fought our way through the crowds on the terraces to find some space to see. By this time Santos was 1-0 up, but you wouldn’t have thought it by the noise that the home supporters were generating. Huge drums rang out all over the terraces and massive flags were waved, as the home supporters cheered on their side to create a carnival like atmosphere. Finally in the dying seconds of the game, Vasco smuggled in a last-minute equaliser and the place just erupted. It was a shame we missed most of the first half, but we did receive a partial refund and got to experience a Brazilian football match.

Just outside of Rio are a couple of very beautiful islands sticking out of an emerald sea, covered in tropical forests and fringed by some of the world’s most glorious beaches. We took a trip with a tour group to the island of Ilha Grande, which has no roads, no cars and is still relatively undeveloped. The tour advertised a relaxing boat trip around the island with a few stop-offs at some beaches. However, they failed to mention the 5 hour bus ride to the boat and their idea of a relaxing trip meant blaring out really loud music and being recorded on film for a DVD, where every time you were on camera you were expected to act like a moron. If this wasn’t enough to sour my mood, we were terrorised by a crew member whose sole purpose was to get everyone to dance on camera in front of 20-30 people stone sober – no thank you. This meant little time for sun bathing and relaxing as we were constantly trying to avoid either the camera or the dancing. The scenery was very beautiful though and we did get to see a couple of stunning beaches and do some snorkelling around the boat. The afternoon was much more chilled out as the thumping beats subsided and we were left to enjoy the ride. Well worth the visit but probably best to go alone.

The six days in Rio flew by and we could easily have spent another week enjoying the sun, the food and the nightlife. It is however a very expensive city and the language barrier is frustrating when trying to speak to the locals. Rio is definitely one of my favourite top three cities in the world and well worth the visit. The perfect place to finish of South America.

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Responses

  1. Excellent post!

    You got to see Neymar play in that match too…you lucky so-and-so!

    Rio sounds an amazing city. Enjoy the States!

  2. Ben. Not enough pictures of the girls of Ipenena!!! “Tall and tan and young and lovely. The girl from Ipenena goes walking. And when she passes, each one she passes goes……..ah.” Famous song – I’m suprised you haven’t heard of it before. Rio looks a lovely city. Stay safe. Dad

  3. What a wonderful way to finish your travels in South America.. Mick remembers passing the beaches and the beautiful girls, dressed in a suit, going to meetings and passing the same girls on their way back to hotel.!!!!
    i think I know where he would have rather been !!!!
    Enjoying the summer here but should all change at the end of the week.
    Looking forward to seeing you when you return. Work is going to be a big shock……

    Enjoy,

    Sue and Mick x


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