Brazil Through the Eyes of Lorena, Part 2/2: Rio de Janeiro

Now it’s time to pick up where we left off with Lorena’s story about her trip to Brazil. This time we’ll be reading about her experiences in the “crown of Brazilian beauty” – Rio de Janeiro. 

I decided to settle in Rio de Janeiro for two months so that I could study Portuguese in a language school while getting to know the city I was always dreaming of visiting one day. The reason that I didn’t head straight to Rio and went to the Northeast before, was because I was scared that Rio would be nothing like on the photos and that its popularity as the destination already ruined it. I was afraid of getting disappointed for not being able to feel the local way of life in the melting pot of foreigners and tourist crowds as it happened to most of the popular European tourist destinations. Luckily, I was wrong. Rio turned out to be my favorite big city I’ve ever visited. It managed to save its identity and can offer unique gastronomy and activities that are not just fake scenery for tourists only but are really a part of locals’ daily life. Cariocas (people from Rio de Janeiro) don’t even seem to try hard to get new tourists by offering some artificially made tourist entertainment, but they offer only what they would personally do: they really eat the food that is presented by traditional, they love to spend their time on the beach drinking coconut water just as tourists do, etc. Rio de Janeiro is a metropolitan city that most of the travelers have on their bucket list but unlike other big cities similar in size and popularity by tourists, Rio didn’t lose its identity by multiculturalism. I was there in high season (December and January) and it actually never got overcrowded by visitors: even when there are more tourists, a big part of them are Brazilians from other regions of the country. I guess that many people around the world want to visit Rio, but due to its distance from tourist-emitting countries and rumors about its insecurity, many of them actually, never go there.

There are many articles about safety problems in Rio and partly they speak the truth, but the problem is definitely not big enough for you to skip Brazil as a destination. There are few simple rules that you have to follow: The first rule would be not to walk home at night time, let’s say from 23 to 5h or so – just call Uber as it’s very cheap there and everyone uses it all the time. The second rule would be not to leave your bag unattended on the beach when going to the ocean – it’s a very normal thing in Brazil to ask the person next to you to take a look at your stuff for a few minutes while you go swimming – Brazilians are generally very helpful and friendly and it’s easy to start a conversation with a person you don’t know. Other rules include not carrying too much cash around and it’s also recommendable not to use your credit card with a lot of money on it but rather transfer a certain amount of money on your debit card. Also, you need to know where you’re going: the northern parts of the city and the city center are not as safe as the southern and western part of the city. The latter is the best part of Rio anyways – Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon, and Barra da Tijuca. That’s why you should think twice before booking the accommodation that is advertised as the one at the very center of the city – in Brazil doesn’t mean the same thing as in Europe. The center of Rio is busy during the working hours, but after 5 pm and at the weekend it gets empty and therefore unsafe. There are only specific places to go there by night as, for example, Lapa where you can go dancing in some of the bars and experience the local culture of people of African descent, who mostly live in cheaper neighborhoods on the north or in favelas – Brazilian slums. That’s where the dark side of Rio story begins.

In Brazil everyone claims that he’s not racist and talking about racial differences is considered inappropriate – that’s where I felt a difference compared to when I talk with friends from the North America or some European country where the immigrants are racially diverse – they can get a light and non-offensive joke about racial differences. In Brazil, where you can find all races and absolutely all forms of mixers, talking about races is a taboo subject. According to some statistics, white people earn 70% more and it’s not hard to see how black people are doing on average less paid jobs and have „cheaper“ lifestyle than whites. People of European descent don’t seem to hate the Africans, but they kinda ignore them. Still, Africans have been living in Brazil for almost as long as Europeans so both races and their mixers have been equally involved in creating the identity and recognizable culture that the country has today. One of the events that every Rio visitor should attend are Mondays on Pedra do Sal – a place that holds rich African heritage and history where you can hear and see the authentic samba performance. As you visit the northern zone of the city, definitely put Museu do Amanhã (Museum of Tomorrow) on your to-do-list. Inside the futuristic-built museum building, there are exhibitions that tell the story about what will happen with our planet in the future, including both natural and social changes. There is one more thing worth taking a ride to – Escadaria Selarón (Selarón steps) made by Chilean artist Jorge Selarón, who spent 23 years of his life collecting tiles from all over the world and setting them on the stairs in front of his house in Lapa neighborhood till his death in 2013.

Selarón steps

Even though northern and central low-class neighborhoods are worth visiting and experiencing, for accommodation and everyday activities I preferred southern zone. It’s more expensive, but safer and with better facilities of all kinds. The heart of the southern Rio is a neighborhood about which one of the most famous songs was written – The girl from Ipanema. You definitely cannot be wrong if you choose any part of Ipanema for your stay – personally, it’s the best neighborhood I’ve ever seen. The northern part of Ipanema is the area next Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon which actually looks like a lake but is connected with the ocean by a channel – it’s a perfect spot for sports and recreation like cycling, running or just walking in the greenery and water by your side. Central street of Ipanema is Visconde de Pirajá, long commercial street with numerous world-class restaurants and shops for every taste. Finally, on the south there’s the famous Ipanema beach – an incredible spot where you can swim, sunbath, drink water from a fresh coconut, play volleyball or just chill and read a book under a coconut palm while watching the well-known symbol of Ipanema – Dois Irmãos hill. It’s a place where locals of every class intersect with the visitors. It’s amazing how such a relaxing spot is situated just next to the urban area with all the facilities that you could need. As the sun goes down, head to Pedra do Arpoador, a rock on the edge of Ipanema beach where can watch the magnificent sunset while drinking caipirinha – Brazilian cocktail made of cachaça, sugar, and lime.

Ipanema beach facing Dois Irmãos hill

Later on, the best place to go is probably the most famous beach in the world – Copacabana. For swimming, locals prefer Ipanema as the water is cleaner, but Copacabana becomes the meeting point in the early evening as it has plenty of bars and restaurants with live music. For nightlife, go to Lapa or you can stay in the southern zone where many nightclubs are situated as well – in any case, you’ll undoubtedly hear at least a few of Brazilian funk songs. It’s a widely-popular genre of music that has a very catchy beat and rough, non-censored lyrics about social inequalities, crime, and sex. The music originally comes from Rio slums and in Rio, swearing is generally more accepted than in any other part of Brazil, even on formal occasions.

When talking about Copacabana, there’s one more event to mention that attracts visitors from all over the world – New Year’s Eve. I can just say that I was lucky enough to be able to organize my Rio trip so that I can experience one of the most exciting events in Rio, besides carnival. The feeling of waiting the New Year in Copacabana is priceless – everyone dressed in white, rich and colorful fireworks that lasted for 14 minutes after midnight, people jumping over waves seven times making seven wishes for the upcoming year. – I cannot decide which part of the experience was my favorite.

There are so many breathtaking viewpoints in Rio de Janeiro, but my favorite was Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf). You can get there by cable-car and definitely won’t regret the price you paid – from there you’ll have the dreamlike view to Rio hills, city lights, beaches, and surrounding islands. The best would be to come in the late afternoon so that you catch some mood-boosting sun, spectacular sunset and the magical night lights. From there, you’ll see one more thing in the distance, one of Seven world wonders – Christ the Redeemer. You can get there by train which goes up the hill or hike if you feel more adventurous. The view from up there is absolutely stunning and the statue of Christ looking after Rio looks grandiose no matter whether you’re religious or not. If you skip hiking to Christ, you should definitely do it to the top of Dois Irmãos hill. The view from the top is one of the most spectacular in Rio, but not everything waits for you on the top – somewhere in the middle of the trail you can have the view to Rocinha – the biggest favela in Rio on your right side, and if you turn your head left you’ll see São Conrado, an expensive, posh seaside neighborhood. From that viewpoint, you’ll be able to see and understand the contrasts of Brazil very clearly.

The view from Pão de Açúcar

Christ the Redeemer

São Conrado – a posh seaside neighborhood and Rocinha – the biggest favela in Rio

When you get tired of all the tourist attractions in the city and just wish to spend the day on a beach where locals go, head to Barra da Tijuca – a new part of the city with high quality of life – even the actual president Jair Bolsonaro owns property there. Only 15 minutes by metro from Ipanema, the neighborhood has a long sandy coastline and it’s ideal for surfing or just spending a relaxing day on the beach.

Drinking coconut water on Barra da Tijuca beach

When you’ve seen all the Rio beaches and want to visit some outside of the crowded city, book a day-trip to Arraial do Cabo – the distance is around 2 hours by car from Rio to the town of Cabo Frio and from there you can take a boat to some of the most beautiful beaches in Brazil: white sand and clear water surrounded by greenery left me speechless.

Arraial do Cabo

Leaving Rio was one of the hardest things on my Brazilian trip because it’s the most complete city that I’ve ever seen. If I had to stay locked in one city for the rest of my life, I would choose Rio de Janeiro without a doubt. Except for the snow, the marvelous city really has it all. I’m happy and sad at the same time: happy that I had the opportunity to live there for full two months but sad because I visited a place that has everything I ever wanted from a destination and no other place will have it all. I guess that it’s just something that a traveler has to deal with. My last destination was São Paulo – with its 18 million people in the metropolitan area, it’s the largest city in South America and whole the southern hemisphere. It’s a business city where life is much more fast-paced than in other Brazilian cities I’ve visited. It doesn’t seem like a perfect tourist spot but does seem a great place to study or to build a career. Still, such a big city needs to have more to offer than other Brazilian cities in the sense of gastronomy, culture, and nightlife – every day you can choose between numerous restaurants, nightclubs with all kinds of music or you can enrich your cultural life by visiting museums, theatres or churches. The cathedral (Catedral da Sé de São Paulo) is probably the most remarkable church that you can see in Brazil, it’s one of the largest neo-gothic cathedrals in the world. It’s the symbol of the city together with the square that it’s situated on and it’s definitely worth stopping and taking a photo there. Another São Paulo trademark that you definitely shouldn’t miss is Museu do futebol (Museum of Football), the most famous museum in the city. The exhibition was about everything you ever wanted to know about Brazilian passion and dedication to the world’s most popular sport. It shows the history of the sport through years and all the World Cups but the most memorable story for me was the one about Maracana stadium in Rio. It was built in 1950 after the decision that Brazil would host the FIFA World Cup. That year, Brazil got to the finals and the whole country was hoping that the victory of the Brazilian team on the newly built stadium would come true. Sadly, Brazil lost it to Uruguay 2:1. Everyone was devastated and many people thought that it was the end of Brazilian football. However, after the loss, Brazil was just getting better and better in football to become what it is today. In the end, there was a quote said by the author of lyrics of Girl from Ipanema, Vinicius Moraes: „..da morte, apenas nascemos, imensamente“ (After death, we are just newly born, immensely).

São Paulo cathedral

Little by little, my Brazilian adventure came to the end. When the plane took off, I just felt lucky that I got to know such a breathtaking country and that I’ll always have my special place on Earth to go back to. I’m already feeling saudade (longing, yearning, nostalgia). Whoever told me not to go to Brazil because it’s dangerous, they were right. You can dangerously fall in love with the endless beaches, warm weather all year long, drinking coconut water, friendly and helpful people on every corner, samba parties in the middle of a street and the unbeatable beauty of sunsets that you watch while drinking caipirinha by the sea. And oh, the coconut palm trees. They were right about getting robbed as well because Brazil stole – my heart.

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