Rio de Janeiro — a Cidade Maravilhosa — a city without comparison, and with a draw so strong that anyone who leaves is full of saudades and wants to return. I returned here one more time, just to double check if I really liked this place that much, and the answer is a resounding yes. It’s also almost February and that means one thing for Rio: Carnival! This year, the official carnival starts on the 17th of February and lasts until Fat Tuesday (or Mardi Gras) on the 21st. If you’re going, you should plan on getting there a week early or so to enjoy the bloco practices, where each neighborhood has its own carnival parade with its own song and practices on a regular basis to make sure to put on a good show during the four days of the actual carnival (starting February 17 this year).
In preparation for carnival, I have been reading a book recommended to me by a Brazilian friend. It’s called Carnival no Fogo or Carnival under Fire in English by Ruy Castro. Castro’s writing is witty and funny and gives the reader a history of Rio from the years of the first discovery by the western world until today, as well as the historical and cultural background of the famous carnival. I highly recommend it for any Riophiles or anyone planning on going there.
One of the more colorful spots in Rio I checked out is called Santa Teresa. People compare it to Montmartre in Paris, with its steep cobble stone streets, and winding alleys that eventually take you a great views of the city. The architecture is eclectic with colonial churches mixed with colorful buildings. It is pretty much a street photographers dream for a photo crawl. There’s one little problem though, Santa Teresa is close to some pretty bad favelas, and borders Lapa, another colorful but rundown neighborhood.
I’m not a huge fan of guidebooks, and have yet to buy one for this trip. I prefer to ask people what their favorite spot is, or ask how to get somewhere so I can practice Portuguese in favor of looking at a map. To get to Santa Teresa I took the subway to the Carioca Station in Centro, and then started walking in the general direction of the hill. I passed through a great little furniture store street this way (Rua do Lavrádio) that I’m sure is not in the guide books (or maybe it is, but I wouldn’t know because I don’t read them).
I made it to the Arcos da Lapa — an old aquaduct that now serves as an overpass for the bonde trolley — when I busted out my blacked-out Nikon D-80 and started snapping a few photos. Immediately I noticed two teenagers take a lot of interest in me (hey, isn’t it a school day?). I make eye contact, and started climbing the hill up to Santa Teresa. About a hundred yards up the street I turn around, and notice one of the kids has walked over and is looking down the street to see where I’m headed. Shit, not so good. This is a pretty quiet neighborhood with very little car or foot traffic. I walk on hoping to spot some tourists, and I do eventually at the Selaron staircase — a beautiful mosaic tile staircase. At this point, the hoodlums have stopped following me, so I shoot some more photographs albeit with some unease. I continue my climb, breaking a sweat at this point, as the stairs and streets are quite steep. When the cobblestone street I’ve been walking crests, I turn around, and, sure enough, my new groupies are there. At this point it is pretty clear what their intent is, so I put my camera away, and am delighted to hear the rumble of a air cooled VW kombi coming up the hill. I flag the driver down, and hop into my extraction vehicle — whew — close call…
After the Kombi picked me up I was able to take a rest and enjoy the scenery. A little bit further, I hopped off near the tram tracks of the historical Bonde — a San Francisco style trolley with wooden benches that goes about 10 mph tops, and screeches maddeningly loud at ever turn. At one point, the trolley pole came of the electric wire, and left us stranded for about a minute while the conductor shook the pole around a bit. The neighborhood is absolutely gorgeous, and not to be passed up, but it would be wise to go in group or guided tour, and keep your camera hidden when not taking a picture.
Here’s a video of the Bonde I found on the web. You ride for free, if you hang off the sides, and the seats are 60 centavos (30¢).
After a little over two weeks in Rio, I have become pretty used to my new city. Whether it’s going to Uruguaiana to buy some cheap knock-off soccer jerseys, taking in the view from Pão de Açúcar, going to random Samba concerts at noon on Praça XV — there is always something fun to do. One of my favorite routines is doing a beach run from Leblon to Arpoador which takes you along Leblon and Ipanema beaches. On the way back I usually stop to do some pull-ups and jump in the ocean whenever it’s too hot. To finish it all off, I order a fresh coconut from one of the beach stands (it’s got electrolytes!), and enjoy the view.
One of Rio’s many beautiful spots is the Jardim Botânico located at the base of the Tijuca National Park It was originally founded in 1808 to acclimate foreign species form the west indies and other parts of the world, and now sports mature trees and other plants from all over the world. I was particularly interested to go check out the collection of orchids and carnivorous plants. Dodging rain showers, and monkeys, I perambulated the park taking in the wonderful smells and views of the Atlantic forest and the garden. The café provided a nice spot to read a book and drink some expresso. Don’t skip this spot if you’re in Rio!
Last night, I came home from grabbing some chopps with Victor, and found two new roommates in my hostel room. One was snoring, and had a little FM radio playing soft bossa nova, and as I laid down to sleep to the sound of rain and music, I had to smile. My first four days in Rio de Janeiro have been nothing short of spectacular even though I have barely ventured from my beach neighborhood called Leblon. The days have been filled with learning Portuguese with new Brazilian friends, going to the beach, and tasting anything that is food (to much amusement of the Brazilians). Some of the more delicious discoveries include: Fruta de Conde, Tapioca pancakes, cups of frozen Açaí that are available on every street corner , and perhaps the caipirinhas as well.
The fabled beach culture here is very unique indeed, and different from anywhere I have been. Many vendors cater to your every need, and on the weekend people play a lot of sports including foot volley — a type of beach volleyball where you cannot use your hands, but the rest of volleyball rules apply. I haven’t taken my good camera out yet due in part to safety concerns, but mostly just laziness. I will post some video too, taken with my new Flip camera.