Most cities gain their beauty through awe-inspiring architecture and the hub of people, but Rio gains much of its character from the surrounding landscape: pockets of rainforest, towering hikllsides, white beaches and blue seas are what Rio is premised upon. And in line with this base, Rio exudes and abundance of exotic grocery shops; you can drink fresh coconut juice straight from the coconut almost anywhere; and a smoothie made of nothing but sugar and fresh fruit can be bought from any one of the countless juice bars that line the streets. These things are found in most places in Brazil, but I found them to be most prevalent in Rio.
I´ll admit that I didn´t really “get” Rio at first. Coming from Europe, I expect cities to be teaming with historic buildings and endless ancient stories. I love cities because of their architecture, their legends, their anonymity, and their crush of people. Rio has all of these, but Europe is steeped in the stuffiness of old. You cannot move for it. Jesus Christ the Redeemer is a baby in comparison to the walls of Rome. Without the European history or the movie references of somewhere like New York, what could I love a city for? You´ll have to forgive my ignorance, but as I´ve never travelled outside of Europe before this adventure, it´s not a question I´d ever asked myself before.
By the time I left Rio, I realised that what made Rio special to me were its contrasts and contractions – right down to its weather, Rio can´t help but surprise you:
Rio is renowned for its high crime rates. The Lonely Planet guide pretty much tells you to just accept that you´re probably going to be mugged. It was so forceful in its language that I was fearful to even take out a camera when walking alone. Yet in reality the people of Rio are friendly and open. Taking the metro to the Tijuca National Park, I have never seen so many people offering their seats to others – and not just young people standing aside for pregnant women and the elderly, but anyone remotely able bodied moving for those with too many shopping bags or for parents with young children. Exiting the metro, a girl spotted a small wrapper on the floor that was not even her own, picked it up, and put it in a nearby bin. Whenever I asked for directions, miming out my pantomime and apologising for my ignorance of their language, people didn´t just respond, they pointed with excited exaggeration and exclaimed loudly as they thought out loud.
But, equally, like any city, Rio is peppered with the desperately poor and those who sit on the fringes of society. I heard plenty of awful stories from fellow backpackers wo knew of travellers being targeted for being so-called “gringos” (any non-Brazilian person) and mugged at knife point. This problem is a symptom of what is arguably Rio´s biggest contrast, that between rich and poor. Despite the rise of a middle class and the flourishing of the economy, particularly with the upcoming World Cup and Olympic Games, the vast difference in living standards between those at the top and the bottom remains a key feature of Rio.
Indeed, the fully comprehend Rio I think you have to visit its poorest and least glamorous side. You can do thise quite easily and relatively inexpensively by seeing a favela through a Favela Tour (you should never enter a favela alone and without a guide.) Favelas are Rio´s slums, forming cities for the poor within the city. I took my tour on my last day of Rio when it was pouring with rain, the local inhabitants sploshing through the puddles in shorts and flip-flops whilst tourists bundled themselves in raincoats and trekking shoes. After wondering the neat, organise blocks of Copacabana with all its brightly lit shops and easy-to-navigate street signs, walking through a favela is like finding your way through a brightly painted, ever-changing maze.
Favelas are beautiful in their own way, filled with twisting paths, strong communities, and haphazard buildings of all different shapes and sizes painted in many different colours. What struck me was just how advanced and permanent the favelas are. The buildings have been erected by the inhabitants themselves and are concrete structures complete with electricity and plumbing; all built by the supposedly “unskilled”. On the surface there is no order to the cramped, chaotic pattern in which these buildings stand, but you can sense the strength of community, particularly if you are taken into one of the favelas schools where the local people try desperately to give their children a brighter future.
Equally, this closeness, both physically and in terms of community, made it possible for me to understand how terrifying living in a favela could be. Most of the areas in favelas are now relatively safe for people living there, but not too long ago they were ruled and run by gangs. By working with the community, through a combination of education, housing, healthcare and persistent policing, the favelas have been what Brazilians call “pacified” and brought under the control of the police and goverment. As the bright lights and cameras turn towards Rio with the upcoming World Cup and the Olympics, I hope that we remember this side of Rio, acknowledge it, and note the contrast. It´s important to remember that there are some people in Brazil who, whilst they love both their country and sport, desperately need that money to be spend on solving social problems. Speaking to the tour guide I learned that the tension between the two costs is a concern for many Brazilians and is not one we should readily overlook.
Other contrasts in Rio are not quite as shocking but can be found. The Sugar Loaf is a tourist hotspot by day with visitors crawling over its expanse in order to get a glimpse of the stunning views. Yet at night time, its a quiet spot for local fishing. A girl from my hostel and I took a walk along the seafront and to see the base of the Sugar Loaf only to find local men fishing together, their lines resting in the purposely made poles in the seawall, drinking beers and chatting quietly. But walk a few blocks back into Copacabana or take a taxi to the infamous streets of Lapa, and this well-mannered evening is contrasted by Rio´s huge party scene. People spill out of the bars and into the streets, sharing a large litre bottle of beer in small glasses (something I have come to really love about Brazilian culture), the men staking their early claim on their chose women before moving onto some kind of club or party.
Perhaps Rio´s most beautiful contrast is that between the concrete jungle of its buildings, and its surrounding landscape. On my second day of Rio, I took Brazil Expedition´s day tour, which included seeing the famous steps of Lapa (where Snoop Dog shot a music video) and Jesus Christ the Redeemer. When viewing the huge statue of Jesus Christ, I must concede that as much as I loved his towering presence (marred only slightly by the trongs of tourists bustling about him), I loved the spectacular views that he surveys more…which, I think, is sort of how Jesus himself would want it. On a clear sunny day the views are breathtaking: you see the full sprawling mass of Rio beneath you, the harbour adorned with far away ships, and the surrounding rainforest of the Tijuca National Park. I actually went a short way into the Tijuca National Park´s rainforest on my third day, and it was definitely a highlight of Rio for me. Taking a metro followed by a short 15 minute bus journey, the park was relatively easy to get to. I walked through the various trails that make up what are essentially the city´s lungs, enjoying the surrounding trees and winding paths. I didn´t take a map but still found it easy to navigate nontheless. If you visit Rio, don´t miss out on the opportunity to take such a beautiful walk and make sure you go!
The final contrast that I found was Rio´s weather. On my fourth day of Rio, after getting myself some serious sunburn from the beach and some itchy insect bites from Tijuca Park, it proceeded to chuck it down with rain. Unlike in the UK where we donne our rain jackets and put up our umbrellas, protecting our feets with waterproof boots and shoes, the people o Rio simply grab an umbrella and keep their shorts and t-shirts on whilst they splash undeterred through the flooded streets. They sit in the coffee bars, sipping cappuccinos and beers in the middle of the day as they while away the rain-saturated hours. Even in Sau Paulo, which I visited a week later, people don´t quite get on and through the rain the way that the people of Rio do. I like to think that this is partly because with the contrast between the beach life and the city life, people have learned to just live equally with both extremes.
The result of all these contrasts and contradictions was that I could never quite let go in Rio. Many European travellers prefer the more relaxed and European vibe of Buenos Aires. Personally, my biggest barrier to getting the most out of Rio was that I was still preoccupied with my terror about the fact that I was leaving home to travel to foreign fields for the best part of a year. I couldn´t let go as I walked the streets alone, and I didn´t meet anyone who was up for a big party as such, so I didn´t get to experience Rio´s crazy night life firsthand.
Would I go back to Rio? Absolutely…and I would take a friend, sample more fruits and go to one of Lapa´s famous street parties.
NB: the hostel I stayed at was Cabana Copa. I would highly recommend this hostel – it´s in a safe area and the hostel itself is both clean and welcoming. Also, if you stay there, try the bakery right inside the gas station located down the road – it´s so good that even the locals queue up for it.)