The Rio Deal

Sunday Life

17 July 2016


Thanks to the 2016 Olympics, all eyes will be on vibrant Rio de Janeiro this August. Tatyana Leonov takes you on a tour of this glorious city. 

Taking a book to Copacabana Beach was, in hindsight, not the brightest idea. It has taken me 15 minutes to find a patch of sand to call my own and there’s no way I’m going to get any reading done.

To my right, three boisterous teenagers are kicking a football around (although how they manage to keep it from not hitting anyone is a mystery). To my left, an animated duo debate where to dine tonight. Directly in front of me, three elderly women discuss perfumes. And behind me, a toddler is trying to bury my belongings.

There are people everywhere! Curvy girls in minuscule bikinis saunter along the sand, boys in tight shorts hurl themselves into the water, and loved-up couples strike pose after pose, extended arms holding selfie sticks. Everyone radiates happiness. I’m not surprised ... after all, this is Copacabana.

I’ve daydreamed about coming to Rio de Janeiro since I was a child (I remember a computer game my brothers and I used to play in which the lead character journeyed to Rio and it all seemed so exotic), and now that I’m here, I have a wide grin plastered across my face.

Rio is everything you would expect and more: impressive beaches, tiny string bikinis, delicious platefuls of rice and beans, too many caipirinhas, continuous clatter and never enough sleep ... it’s hard to sleep in a city that’s brimming with so much energy. But there’s more to Rio than just beachside revelry, so I take an Urban Adventures day tour to discover what’s beyond the hedonism of Copacabana.

We rendezvous with our guide, Luiz, and make tracks to our first stop, Santa Teresa. This charming bohemian neighbourhood, full of winding cobbled streets flanked by beautiful old mansions, is a photographer’s nirvana. We snake our way up and down, stopping frequently to admire artists’ residences adorned with colourful Portuguese tiles, to sip espressos at edgy cafes and to poke about artsy shops. The most unique of these is Getúlio Damato’s studio. Housed in a tram, his workshop is full of handmade knick-knacks crafted from everyday materials such as bottles, torches, buckets and clips.

Rio is famous for its favelas, or shanty towns, positioned on the hills surrounding the city. It’s estimated there are about 600 favelas in Rio, and one in four locals resides in one.

Tours of these often rough neighbourhoods are growing in popularity but it’s definitely not recommended that you explore one of these areas on your own. Not so long ago, favelas were notorious for high crime rates and poor living conditions, but thanks to a recent government program, which involved introducing police bases inside the favelas, things have changed for the better.

We tour the favela of Santa Marta, which was the first to undergo the makeover. It’s also one of the steepest and to date the only favela in Rio with a cable car.

Because most of Rio’s favelas are spread across the hillsides, some of the homes command stunning views. Consequently there are countless stairs to tackle, which make everyday tasks such as lugging shopping quite the challenge. Predictably, the cable car was well received.

Urban Adventures works with local guides, injecting extra income into the community, and we are guided by a resident guide called Roberto. 

He takes us to see a bronze statue of Michael Jackson placed in a little square to honour the fact the star filmed scenes for the video of his 1995 hit They Don’t Care About Us.

As Roberto leads us down narrow passageways – passing bars, eateries and plenty of homes – wherever I look I see buckets full of life. A barber jokes with a customer; a young woman waters flowers on her windowsill; a mother bathes two toddlers in an outdoor bath; an old man is carried down the steps; two chickens shuffle into a nook. It’s a glimpse into lives some may view as ordinary but favela life is, in fact, quite extraordinary.

My last stop for the day is a visit to the magnificent Christ the Redeemer statue. I’ve seen countless photos of this imposing icon, but the sheer scale of it astounds when you’re up close.

I find a spot in the crowd and wait for the cloud cover to slip past. When the clouds do fleetingly break, the sun’s gleaming rays pierce through the grey backdrop and illuminate the colossal statue. Everyone’s cameras go into overdrive. Then, as quickly as they left, the clouds return, enveloping Christ and the wait begins again. Time to go, I hear someone say.

I want to finish my Rio experience on a culinary note and head to Jobi, a cool bar notorious for its chopp, a light refreshing draught beer, and street-style snacks located in the trendy neighbourhood of Leblon.

I arrive before sunset, snag a table, order empanadas, then sink into my seat and watch the world go by. Within the hour the bar is packed with revellers spilling out on to the street. Although alone, I feel far from it. Surrounded by music, the clink of glasses and laughter, I nurse my caipirinha and bob my head to Rio’s beat.

 

TRIP TIPS

When to go: August. The Brazilians know how to party and the Olympics are going to be epic.

Where to stay: The opulent art deco Belmond Copacabana Palace overlooks Copacabana Beach and has hosted an array of superstars, including Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana, Madonna and Michael Jackson. belmond.com/copacabana-palace- rio-de-janeiro

What to wear: If you want to fit in ... not much.

What to eat: Feijoada, a black bean and pork stew.

What to listen to: I Go to Rio by Peter Allen.

More information: riodejaneiro.com