Rio de Janeiro – “Cidade Maravilhosa”

So, after exactly 9 months of traveling and living in South America, I had my first lightning bolt of ‘inspiration’ for my future…But it was not the type of awakening I was expecting, I still have no idea what I want to do career-wise etc, but I do know that what ever I end up doing, it can not be in a tropical, humid country. A week in 35 degree weather and 90% humidity in Rio de Janeiro nearly killed me…literally…although the dose of food poisoning I had could also have been my cooking it seems…

But let me start at the beginning. After 2 weeks surrounded by the most amazing natural landscapes you can imagine in the south of Chile, I had less than 24 hours back in Santiago to wash my clothes, do some Christmas shopping and get organised for my next journey. So with absolutely no sleep in between my 9 hour bus journey from Temuco and my flight to Brazil, I was off on my next adventure to the ‘Marvellous City’ – Rio de Janeiro. My third country in South America…AND the only one that doesn’t speak Spanish! I have finally become relatively comfortable with living in Spanish and upon arriving in Rio I was back at square one and not really able to communicate properly. It took my brain a few days to program itself to say ‘obrigada’ instead of ‘gracias’. Now Spanish and Portuguese may be similar in some ways, but I had been warned on many occasions not to speak Spanish to Brasileños as they hate the idea that tourists just presume they speak the same language as the rest of the continent. But I still ended up speaking a strange mix of Portuguese, Spanish and English in order to get by.

It was a bit of a shock to get to a huge, bustling city after the south of Chile and I think the stark contrast between the two made me not like Rio at first. The humidity, heat and grey weather at the beginning of my trip also didn’t exactly make Rio the most appealing place for me. But after I managed to work out the bus system and explore the city a bit, I came to like it.

It seems like even when I am in cities, the first thing I end up doing is visiting what ever green space or park the city has to offer and Rio was no different. I joined a couchsurfing event (a global networking site which aims to connect travelers and locals for free accommodation, cultural exchange and social gatherings) which was going hiking in Tijuca National Park. This is the green lung of Rio and consists of Atlantic rainforest stretching across the amazing granite mountains that are the backdrop to the city. Apparently without the rainforest above the city, Rio would be 5-7 degrees hotter than it already is. Thank goodness for small mercies is all I can say!!! Hiking through the dense rainforest with very little air movement was extremely hot and we were all soon dripping with sweat. The climb was not that steep and after volcanoes and mountains in the Andes I found the hike quite easy compared to some of the Cariocas (the name of people from Rio) who battled quite a lot as they don’t seem to go hiking much. So we hiked along at a nice, relaxed pace and eventually made it to the top of Pico do Tijuca (the second highest peak in Rio) where we had a wonderful, but somewhat hazy view across most of Rio. Unfortunately on the top there was zero shade and with the sun beating down on us, we didn’t linger for too long before making our way back down. We ended the day with an amazing dip under a freezing cold, but really refreshing waterfall in the rainforest.

View from the top of Pico Tijuca in Tijuca National Park

I then joined two Brasileñas who had just moved from Sao Paolo to Rio for work for dinner at a typical, no frills Brazilian restaurant in Ipanema. I got to try feijoada which is black beans (a staple part of the Brazilian diet), dried, shredded meat and manioc flour. It may not sound that appetizing, but after a long day hiking, it was heaven.

The main problem for me with the heat and humidity was that it seemed to sap all my energy and I just didn’t feel like doing much. But I did do two of the must-see tourist attractions Rio has to offer – the Sugarloaf and the statue of Christ the Redeemer on top of the Corcovada mountain overlooking the city. Both attractions were amazing, mostly for the views across the city and bay, but the crowds were awful. The view from the Sugarloaf in the morning was rather hazy, but I was lucky enough in the afternoon to have totally clear weather on top of the Corcovada and then I could really appreciate the beauty of this city.

A view of Christ the Redeemer from the Sugarloaf

When most people think of Rio, the first thing that they think of is the beaches…especially Copacabana and Ipanema. But to be honest, I am not sure if it is just the hype or what, but I wasn´t overly impressed by them. Granted, I did visit them on a Saturday when all you could see was red umbrellas from one end to the other and thousands of people, but to me there was nothing really unique about them and they are simply beaches in a city.

The Gay Part of Ipanema Beach

But, having said that, they did make fun places to people watch… Brazilians seem to come in all shapes and sizes – you can definitely see the influence of African genetics in people and many are rather large. But on the other hand, you definitely have many people who are really beautiful and focused a lot on fitness (judging by the mobile gyms dotted along the beaches). What binds all these types of Brazilians together is the fact that they love wearing really tiny bikinis that no matter what the size or shape of the person, leaves very little to the imagination. Overall Rio has an incredibly laid back atmosphere and it was not uncommon to see people in restaurants and in the streets near the beaches in bikinis and speedos and all over the city shirtless men are the norm. Totally different to Santiago is all I can say…

Another essential tourist activity in Rio is to experience Samba and so I went with a Spanish girl, Nuria, to a couchsurfing get-together at a local samba bar which was a great mix of locals and not too many tourists. Parties in Rio seem to spill onto the streets and there is a fairly laid back attitude to drinking outside the bars etc. The samba was really great and was basically just one big jam session with a bunch of musicians sitting around a table, playing a variety of instruments and drinking beer.

A jam session at a Samba Bar

Samba music is actually rather sad if you listen to the lyrics and many songs are about slavery and thus have a distinctive African element to them. The whole time I thought of my brother who would have been in his element and probably would have picked up something to drum on and join in. There was one really old man beating away on a tiny, rather battered looking frying pan! It was here at the Beco do Rato bar that I finally got to taste an authentic local caiparinha, which is the national cocktail of Brazil. Rather strong, but very tasty and refreshing considering that even close to midnight the heat and humidity were still unbearable. The funniest thing was the really old barman who made the drinks for Nuria and I and afterwards wanted us to come around behind the bar and dance with him. Using the excuse of not speaking Portuguese and therefore not understanding him, we rejoined a bunch of other couchsurfers from Rio and various parts of the world.

Rio has many different sides to it – huge, elaborate mansions alongside favelas (see my post ´The other side of Rio´ for more about favelas), but along with the rich and poor areas, it also has a rather bohemian neighbourhood called Santa Teresa. On my last afternoon in Rio, I took the famous little tram that takes you up

The famous yellow tram going up the hill in Santa Teresa neighbourhood

the hill to this neighbourhood where I explored winding little streets, old buildings, cute little cafes and lots of colourful and vibrant grafitti. There was even a huge mural for the 2010 Football World Cup which had the Brazilian football team on the yellow tram going on safari with elephants, giraffe and zebra (See Photo of the Week). Being the middle of the week the atmosphere wasn´t as big as I think it gets on the weekend, but there were still much activity in the many small bars and cafes. I also visited a 250 step stairway which a Chilean artist has spent years transforming into a mural with tiles from all over the world. It was really cool to walk up the stairway and see tiles from countries all over the place and often tiny, obscure cities as well as murals to specific events like the millennium in 2000 and again the 2010 World Cup.

A mosaic of 250 stairs in Santa Teresa, Rio

So overall, Rio was an interesting place to visit with lots to see and do, but I was really glad to leave the heat and humidity behind after a week and head inland to probably one of the youngest cities in the world and one seldom explored by backpackers – Brasilia.

The Cristo, full moon and the lights around the Lagoa make a perfect setting

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