I (Ben) am writing this post on our way to Chuy, a small town on the border between Brazil and Uruguay. Rio has been one hell of a ride! Since arriving on the 26th of March, the city sucked us straight in. We pretty much did everything there is to do, from a favela tour to ‘Forro’ dancing, from bloco parties to Portuguese libraries. It was a city we will never forget, and one, we admit, are happy to be leaving behind. Tired, we’ve decided to have a little break in the tiny coastal town of Punta del Diablo in Uruguay.
But first, RIO!
We arrived in Rio late at night from São Paulo (we think we’ve been to São Paulo more times than Cape Town at this point) and caught an Uber to Aquarela do Leme hostel, located on the outskirts of a favela. As we arrived we were met by a rather odd commotion. Some British guy, who became infamous during the week for being rather strange, was verbally abusing some guests. ‘Excuse me, Excuse me! This guy is threatening to kill us!’, shouted a rather bewildered Austrian girl, while we were checking in. Great intro to the city of God, we thought! All checked in, we made our way to our comfy beds. We were quite excited about Rio, just from the mere introductory drive it had already reminded us of Cape Town.
Free walking tour
We woke up early the next day thinking we would check out the famous Escadaria Selarón steps, but not without caution. People had endlessly warned us we would be murdered for simply looking foreign, so on went the secret wallets. During breakfast, we found out there was a free walking tour of Rio, which also included the steps. It seemed like a good way of easing into the city! The tour started downtown, near Carioca Square, an area known as the original city. We soon learnt that Rio de Janeiro was named by the Portuguese, calling it ‘river of January’ (arriving in January). Funnily enough, the ‘river’ they thought it was, is actually a bay, but they probably thought ‘we’ve named it already, why change it now’.
The tour took us to various parts of the city, including the Municipal Theater of Rio de Janeiro, Museu Nacional de Belas Artes and Confeitaria Colombo, a famous bakery. To be honest, it did drag on a bit and we quickly lost interest, especially since the tour guide spoke in rather broken English. Finally, we arrived at the famous steps, but we weren’t the only ones there. We had to queue to get a picture, and find our countries’ tiles. On first attempt I didn’t find South Africa, but by chance stumbled upon it the second time round. The Dutch had many a Delft blue steps, so that wasn’t hard to find. You can find a bit of the history of the steps here.
All fueled up on a kilo restaurant lunch, where you pay for the weight of your food, we made our way to the Royal Portuguese Institute of Reading, a beautiful 18th century library with rows upon rows of books. We happily snapped some photos, and decided that would be enough of an adventure for a day. After all, we had only gotten about 4 hours sleep the night before.
Nope, that didn’t happen. Knowing us, we were roped into learning how to do forro on the rooftop of our hostel, a local Brazilian dance. Tiny João, the dance teacher (he wasn’t tiny, he was a Brazilian beast, and I had to rather awkwardly sway him right and left) showed us how to be a centre and receiver (learning later it was sender and receiver). Me, being a man, had to be a centre. I had to tip Fem’s centre of gravity ever so slightly, rocking her to and fro. Once I got her rocking, it was easy to guide her backward and forward. Then we had to change partners, which was a rather awkward affair. I had to look deeply into the souls of other guests, and ever so gently push them left and right. And then grab them by the waist, and swoop in for a hug. One Danish girl quickly left the scene, saying ‘this is far to much hugging for a European’.
We soon got the hang of it, and off we went to a forro club in an old factory (Fundição Progresso), a place where we could practice our spritely new moves. Everyone twirling about, like a scene straight out of dirty dancing. With a bit of Dutch courage (and some caipirinhas) we hit the dance floor. We’ve been conditioned to think that if a person dances with you, it’s a ticket to a bit of drunk romance. Not in Latin America! You simply dance, say your thank yous, and go back about your business. At first, I was a bit weirded out by the randoms that would come over to ask for Fem’s hand, but getting jealous only leads to further complications. Learn to dance forro? Checked that off the bucket list…
Wandering through a falafel
The next day, we learnt that there would be a favela tour of the local Santa Marta Favela (we’ve named them falafels, it just sounds better). This tour was particularly interesting, as we got to learn about the history of slavery in Brazil, the origins of such despicable practices and why it took so long for the Brazilians to abolish it. And when they did, what the social impact would be. In short, Brazil abolished slavery in 1880, which left a massive population without places to stay. The rich had their houses along the coasts (Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon, etc), while the poor had nowhere to go, but up. And so they went, setting up informal settlements all way up the sides of various mountains around Rio. Ironically, they now enjoy some of the best views the city has to offer. We learnt that this particular falafel had been ‘pacified’ (meaning made drug and crime free by police force), after Michael Jackson decided to shoot a music video there for his song ‘They don’t really care about us‘. Strange but a partially true fact. The Brazilian government had already begun the process of pacification and the music video only accelerated the efforts. The falafel residents decided to erect a statue at the top of the mountain in MJ’s honour that looks out over Christ the Redeemer, ironically.
After a day of trundeling about, playing football with the local kids, beating some samba drums (and nearly throwing our sticks away – that’s what our instructor seemed to be telling us in Portuguese), meeting Jose Mario – the local falafel president – and learning how to make caipirinhas, we quickly learnt that Rio isn’t as dangerous as we’ve been made to believe. Yes, you have to keep your wits about you and every now and then you come across a guy holding a AK 47, casually walking the streets. But the city itself is rather safe, especially during the day.
Mountains, views and sunsets
Taking a break from carnival (more on that later), we decided we had to do three more sites. Christ the Redeemer, Sugar Loaf, and Morro Dois Irmãos. Overall, Christ the Redeemer is completely overrated. It’s just a statue on the peak of the mountain. We haven’t bothered to look into the history or why it’s there, but we did have some good chuckles with all the people trying to get pictures of him in his entirety (people lay about on the concrete floor, as the area is too tiny to take photos). Sugar Loaf was showing off though, with amazing views of the city below. We were told to go there at dusk, and wait for the city lights to come on, all quite beautiful.
But the biggest highlight of the tourist tour had to be Morro Dois Irmãos or Two Brothers Peaks. Situated on the other side of Ipanema beach sit two peaks, one over looking the other. Irmao Menor, the smaller of the two is 421 meters high, while the bigger brother is 533. It started with a metro ride to Jardim de Alah. We got out, and a local warned us that what we were doing was very dangerous, rather go to the beach. Nah, we had done our research, and over a thousand people couldn’t be wrong (and it turned out, they weren’t). As we made our way to the base of the mountain, we had to take a motorbike to the top of a favela. We zipped left and right, ramped over a few speed bumps, crashed through some apple sellers, passed a few AK47 wielding gangsters and arrived at an old 5 side football field, marking our starting point. Seemed all straightforward, we shrugged. Off we started, trekking and trekking up a steep hill in the rainforest, for what seemed an eternity. Our hiking was broken up by a few cute common marmoset monkeys (the ones from the movie ‘Rio’). Eventually, we had made to a somewhat undersold spectacular view. Breathtaking from the moment we arrived, we had panoramic views of the golden beaches below.
That night, our last one in Rio de Janeiro, we decided we still wanted to see a football game, as we had booked a tour multiple times through Airbnb, but the host kept cancelling. On the 6th of March, Fluminense, a local football team was playing Ypiranga FC, from the state of Rio Grande do Sul. We arrived at the Maracana stadium, with the game well underway. Nonetheless, we were gifted with three goals, and a win for the local team! The crowd was ecstatic, and so were we!
Read our next update for more about our carnival adventures!