We Travel

What We Did In Rio

posted by on 28/04/2013

“What brought you to Brazil?” was the second most asked question I heard during my ten-day visit to Rio De Janeiro this month. I’d explain that the visit was mainly to kick off Y&Y Travels (and escape the SEVEN MONTH winter England had bestowed on us). However my answer – my true answer, anyway – was that I wasn’t quite sure. I just knew I felt drawn to the country, and more specifically, Rio, for a quite some time. I wasn’t sure where exactly the interest had stemmed from – I had no first-hand exposure to the culture, I’d never hit the samba spots with Elephant & Castle’s Brazilian contingent; in fact, I’d never even seen City of God (which is hardly a tourist-friendly representation of Rio, but still). The point is, I had no real, informed opinion of what I’d see, smell, hear, taste or feel in Rio De Janeiro, and this made this ten-day sensory overload even greater.

If I knew anything about the impetus to my Rio visit, it was that I wanted to experience Rio’s culture before the two mammoth sporting events it will play host to – World Cup 2014 and Olympics 2016 – had a chance to make the city a hub for international tourism.

However, I saw very quickly how unlikely it was that the Games would do anything to skew the culture in the breathtakingly beautiful, unique and colourful city.

This is because, for a start, while Rio takes 50% of Brazil’s tourism, tourism isn’t Rio’s biggest trade. As big as a cultural event both the World Cup and the Olympics will be, neither will have the autonomy to dilute the things that make Rio De Janeiro what it is.

Secondly, the sporting events will fit into the strong culture of health and fitness throughout the city. As a less-than-typical runner, I felt an overwhelming sense of comfort witnessing the varied runners powering down Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, or on the foot/cycle path that runs adjacent to the beaches at all hours of the day and night. Runners of all ages and body-types, in all types of attire (ever seen someone jogging through Hyde Park with their Asics and a thong bikini on? No? Thought not) take on the roads daily. And those who weren’t running were using the free facilities such as the body-weight training bars, playing volleyball on the beach, surfing, swimming or doing some other super-fit activity.

Along the stunning 7KM stretch of Lake Lagoa, where my cousin and I spent our last morning cycling, all of the biggest sporting and fitness brands provide outdoor personal training services to locals for the equivalent of around £60 a month. Away from the beaches and waterfront, gyms are dotted everywhere and outdoor workout facilities are dotted around the parks. The city also has it’s own bank-sponsored cycle rental scheme, pretty much identical to the Barclay Bikes in London.

If you were wondering, the most asked question was, “você não fala Português?! (you don’t speak Portuguese?!)”  It was always said in exclamation and accompanied with a look of shock.

Our lack of Portuguese was also met by surprise because my cousin and I were often assumed to Brazilian; our skin colour made blending into Rio’s multi-ethnic racial fabric very easy. This meant we were able to move around in different environments – such as the favelas we visited – and we were met with no more than an occasional curious glance.  Being treated as a Brazilian also meant that I gained insight into the economical, social and racial landscape of the city.

African culture and slavery is woven tightly into the tapestry of Brazil, as more African slaves were taken to Brazil than the whole of the Caribbean and America put together, and the Portuguese were the last slave owners to abolish slavery. Socially, black skin is still very much associated with poverty and working class Brazilians – even though there are people of all races in every social group. While I was never treated with anything less than respect, occasionally I did get a shallow, surface understanding of the complexities that blacks in Rio face.

If there is a second language in Rio, it is Spanish, not English. While I’m sure this will change in the tourism sector particularly over the coming years, we found English speakers hard to come by at times. While a little frustrating when we first arrived and needed to communicate anything beyond what our travel apps and basic google translations had taught us, this was actually positive as it forced us to learn, practice the broken Portuguese we’d picked up, and find different ways to communicate with each other.

A complex city, Rio is considered as Brazil’s LA. Much like LA, the hub of Rio’s coolest activity doesn’t happen downtown; the beautiful and affluent areas of Copacabana and Ipanema are Rio’s Beverley Hills and West Hollywood – a fact noted to us by Usain Bolt’s appearance while we were visiting and Halle Berry premiering her new film at Copacabana Palace hotel just days after we checked out. The comparison greatens when you witness just how stark and flagrant the gap between the ostentatiously rich and the extremely poor is. In all cosmopolitan cities the economic ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ often live in close proximity of each other, however, because poverty is rife and visible in the city, the gap between the two communities appears even wider.

I was fortunate enough to visit a couple of favelas without having a pay for a guided tour (that didn’t sit well with me morally – to my understanding the communities in the favelas make no financial gains from having a outsider lead a bunch of tourists around their neighbourhood). Favelas are shantytowns built haphazardly, mainly on the hilly landscape that was originally deemed inhabitable, and occupied by many of Rio’s working class communities.

“They can see the world from up here,” my cousin observed as we sat on the side of a mountain. Residents of favelas have access to the city’s most stunning views. With much-documented issues with drugs and crime in many of the city’s favelas, they are perceived as notoriously dangerous.

Thus, in preparation for the Games, numerous social projects have been developed, and the government continues on its mission ‘clean’ the favelas of gun crime, drugs and gangs.

In the first favela we visited we observed a heavy police presence and social regeneration, including new-build flats and apartments in development. Another favela we visited wasn’t quite so polished, and we saw the local gang – kids no older than eighteen, armed and patrolling the streets on mopeds.

 Of course it goes without saying, most favela inhabitants are hardworking, law-abiding citizens – not gun-toting teenage druglords. I hope that as the spotlight shines on Rio over the next four years, more people acknowledge this fact.

We spent our time weaving between different, often contrasting spheres of Rio life, from our days at the favelas, to bus and cab hopping around the city’s coolest spots, chilling on the beach and parlaying with the super-wealthy in Copacabana Palace. The main thread that tied all of these experiences together was the beautiful spirit of the people we met.

From my experience, I found that Brazilians are naturally warm and affectionate people. I felt myself moved by just observing the way people treated each other. A feeling of love resonated through everything from stolen kisses between couples (I’m usually the first to find PDA awkward and a bit icky) and embraces between friends, to the way my cousin and I were both welcomed by everyone we met – even if we spoke no Portuguese and they spoke no English.

Even when not acting out of love, passion and fervency seems to colour the actions of the average Brazilian. The hustle and bustle of the city hasn’t been able to steal or dilute that sense of passion.  I’m a believer that true riches are not of the pocket, but of the spirit. Following this rhetoric, Rio is easily one of the richest cities I have ever visited. And it’s inhabitants, whether ‘rich’ or ‘poor’ in material, are insanely wealthy in spirit.

Our attempt at engaging in traditional tourist activities started and ended with a rainy trip to Sugarloaf Mountain. What should’ve been an evening giving us the best view of Rio on a clear day became two hours of queuing to get off of a mountain top in tropical rain. Upon hearing there’s an average two hour wait time to see Christ The Redeemer (Cristo Redentor in Portuguese) up close we decided we were fine with our ground-level view.

This was fine for me – my aim was to see what Brazilians really got up to; and I knew they didn’t busy themselves with weekly trips to their biggest tourist spots. These are my top discoveries in Rio De Janeiro.

It should be understood that Rio never sleeps. Ever. On Easter Sunday, a day when, in England, all major retail businesses do not open their doors, Rio’s supermarkets were open until late in the evening. Social events – including meals out – do not start until after nine in the night for many.

Music colours the streets of Rio; from the beach, to the supermarket, walking through the neighbourhoods or sitting in the back of a crazy taxi-driver’s cab (I’m sure it’s a given that taxi drivers are crazy everywhere, but the blatant disregard for traffic lights most of our drivers had was something quite epic), we felt as if we were living our lives to a Brazilian soundtrack. From old romantic songs, to samba, zouk, funk carioca (or Brazilian hip hop to you and I) and the odd Carly Rae Jepsen or equally random English-speaking pop song, we spent our time drinking in the music.

Rio’s main party district is Lapa, which is most lively on a Friday or Saturday night. Close to Centro (downtown), it’d be Rio’s equivalent to Leicester Square, except it’s nothing like Leicester Square.

The strip starts with the large square full of late-night stalls to buy fried food or ridiculously strong caipirinhas (Brazil’s national cocktail, made up of Brazil’s answer to rum, cachaça, lots of sugar and lime), and samba artists who set up their instruments and incite a street rave in the middle of the square. Walking down the strip, clubs and bars are packed-to-heaving with partygoers dancing mainly to traditional Brazilian music and live bands.  Most clubs charge around twenty reai – the equivalent of around seven pounds – admission fee. However, we never felt the need to go into a club while in Lapa; there was enough happening on the streets to keep us occupied and amused until five in the morning.

Ever heard someone say, “that area’s safe in the day, but it’s a bit dodgy in the night” about a place?

Well, Lapa feels like the opposite. On a busy night, teeming with people, alcohol and festivities it’s easier not to notice the dilapidated buildings, abundance of rough sleepers, or the general shady characters that roam the streets. However, in the daytime they’re all that’s left as the area becomes a relative ghost town.

However, we found ourselves back there in daylight for further exploration after discovering one of the gems of Rio’s inner-city tucked away in the back streets of Lapa on our first night there. The world famous Escadaria Selarón, or, Selarón’s Stairway.

At first, we merely recognised the stairway as the pretty stairs we saw in Snoop Dogg and Pharrell’s Beautiful video. However, it is easily one of the most stunning pieces of artwork I have personally seen. The intricacy of the design work across the two-hundred plus steps cannot be captured by photograph alone, but we had a good try!

Chilean artist Jorge Selarón started working on the then-dilapidated stairs in 1990. He lived in the area, and wanted to do something to improve it’s appearance. It was his ‘gift’ to the Brazilian people, he said.

The stairs’ mosaic aesthetic is made up of over 2000 tiles from across the world. He invited people to post him tiles or images he’d transform into tiles. The tiles also captured pop culture references from around the globe; a Coca-cola tile, Princess Diana tile and a Bob Marley tile were only some of the few we spotted.

Making them an ever-evolving piece of artwork, Selarón said of the stairs, “This crazy and unique dream will only end on the day of my death.” On January 10th 2013, Selarón was found dead on the stairs – thought to have burned and killed himself.

In the daytime, the stairs are a massive tourist attraction, with hordes of international visitors arriving in mini-buses to come and snap pictures. When we were there, a fashion shoot featuring a famous Victoria Secrets model and the world-renowned Mangueira samba school was taking place.

In the dark, Escadaria Selarón becomes the chill out spot of Lapa, as groups of friends congregate on the steps with a beer. We had many a strange and random bonding session with Selarón’s various stair dwellers whenever we visited at night.

While Lapa must be experienced while visiting Rio, it isn’t the party destination for many of Rio’s young clubbers. Hip-hop, house, and funk parties can be found in random spots around the city. Like most places, it’s a case of keeping an ear to the street.

We were introduced into the world of Charme parties by our friend Andressa. If you’ve ever attended a black wedding, christening, or a rave in 2008 in east central London, chances are you’ve seen the Candy dance, the electric slide sequence danced to Cameo’s song Candy. If like me, you’ve watched in amusement when people who haven’t been exposed to the dance stare in wonderment at a bunch of 50+ people performing the synchronised steps – in time and on beat, you can imagine what I felt like when I stepped into the Charme party. The whole club was dancing, in time, to a random English-speaking R&B song from the early noughties. When the song changed, the dancers continued – with a different routine.

“Is this…like…a flashmob?” “Or a dance class? Maybe they take mid-week dance classes then come and practice in the club…”

It’s neither – the choreographer is led by one charme dancer at the front, and everyone follows. Of course, we got into the swing of things, and by the middle of the night we had routines on lock. (Disclaimer, I have no co-ordination so this may or may not be a slight exaggeration).

Even more interesting than the timed moves, were the song choices. All American R&B, the majority of the dance material at the party we went to were the songs I only usually hear when my iTunes’ shuffle decides to chuck me a curveball and throw them into rotation. Yet, even though they didn’t understand the words, and even though I’m sure most of the songs weren’t commercial hits in any world territory, everyone was dancing in time and singing along to these random cuts.

For obvious reasons, we spent a lot of time on the beach while in Rio. Based in Ipanema and Copacabana for much of our trip, we took advantage of having the stunning beach just minutes away. While both connect, my favourite stretch of beach is on the Ipanema side, where activity seems more chilled out it appears to get less tourist traffic.

Copacabana Beach is often the chosen venue for many large-scale free events. During our visit we caught Usain Bolt winning his first race of the season (and samba dancing with the female Brazilian sprinters to Passinho Do Volante, my favourite song of the moment).

Both beaches are quite ‘trendy’ hang out spots, with free wifi covering the strip, lots of girls clad in little more than thong bikinis, Brahma beers sold by beach vendors and music usually wafting in from some direction.

The beach was where I first tasted, and fell in love with pure açaí. The superfood, used in health supplements, overpriced smoothies and weight-loss tablets, is a Brazilian delicacy that can be found all over Rio. However, most vendors sell açaí as a dessert or sweet treat, blended with strawberry or a sweeter fruit and adorned with sprinkles or nuts. Our friend introduced us to pure açaí berry; rich, unsweetened and freshly blended, a bowl of the dark purple stuff isn’t cheap, but it’s ridiculously moreish and good for you. We chose Amazonia Soul.

As you know, we’re massive foodies on Yin&Yang. So, when I tell you I did not have ONE bad meal during my time in Brazil, you can imagine the excitement with which I type this.

On our first night we visited Leblon, the swanky restaurant area where Rio’s rich kids go for dinner. The restaurant we visited was nice, but I found the general atmosphere of the restaurant, and the strip itself, to be seeped in style over substance.

Close by, in the bohemian backstreets of Ipanema, I found the number of great bistro-pubs and lunch spots populated mainly by young professionals reminiscent of Clapham’s night scene.

Botofogo had some of my favourite restaurant spots. Meza Bar’s creative menu featured some interesting twists on classic dishes and international cuisine, and some very tasty mango vodka shots. Another favourite of mine was Joquinta’s Bar and Restaurant, where Brazilian soul food is sold in mammoth sized portions.

However, the most special meal of the trip was on our last night, at Copacabana Palace’s Cipriani restaurant. Closing the trip at one of Rio’s most exclusive restaurants, we dined on incredible Italian cuisine while the pianist provided the soundtrack.

On our quest to make our trip as well-rounded as possible, we had a few different abodes during the visit. Starting in a friend’s flat on the border of Copacabana and Ipanema, we followed this with two days at Oztel, a brilliantly funky traveller’s hostel that, if in London would definitely be in Shoreditch. It successfully destroyed all of my preconceived ideas of hostels.

Copacabana Palace, our home for the last three days of our trip, is Rio De Janeiro’s most exclusive and decadent hotel. This was a little tidbit that escaped me until I actually arrived in Rio, and told Rio locals that I’d be staying there. They’d gasp, “Copacabana Palace?!” I’ll give a little more detail on what exactly procured that gasp over on the blog – however, let’s just say I understood the awe when I stepped into the hotel.

When I arrived in Rio, I wasn’t sure what brought me there. When I was leaving, I knew what would bring me back. Rich, colourful and fun, Rio De Janeiro really is a beautiful City of God.

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