The phone, quick get the phone! Oh No the alarm didn’t go off! The taxi is here and we need to head out for the airport NOW. Lou is ready in 10 minutes, a new world record. What a way to start our last couple of hours in Brazil.
On the way to the airport the reflection begins; Rio turned out to be everything I didn’t expect, I had heard all the horror stories, the crime, the dangerous streets, robberies, a city under siege by criminals.
I found something totally different, a city full of gracious people, ready to help and direct us around their great city, surprises at every turn. For ten days we lived the life of Rio, staying in a local apartment, taking the subway, shopping in the local market. We took precautions keeping our cameras and wallets in backpacks, wearing the backpack on the front instead of the rear when in crowds, avoiding the beaches at night and the “favellas” altogether.
A favella is a slum that until recently was run by gangs. Rio was settled in the valleys, hoping they could preserve the forests on the hills and their beauty but soon squatters started taking over the land. Eventually there were too many to remove and the favellas started, their permanence sealed with political meandering.
The people in Rio struck us as disinterested, rude at times, stepping in front of us when in line and occasional bump or a shove but we quickly found that if you engaged them, they were more than happy to help.
I came down with a stomach virus that left me in a really bad state, Lou went out to see if she could find something to help and even though she doesn’t know a lick of Portuguese, she found a girl who not only helped her but walked her to the local pharmacy and worked with the pharmacist to find the right cure. Over and over again we found people who would work through the language barrier to help us with directions, ordering in restaurants or finding the bathroom.
Just like any big city, everybody is in a hurry and engaged in their lives and tasks at hand but when you pierced the veil of anonymity the people in Rio were warm, friendly and went out of their way to help.
Does Rio have its problems? Sure it does. One of our new friends, Carlos, relayed a story that happened to him just a couple of years ago when he got lost and ended up in a favella. A gang stopped him at a road block to rob him.
His little girl, Kamilla, was asleep in the back seat, instinctively he slammed the car into reverse and headed down a side street. Little did he know the gang had set us a “mouse trap”, he was cornered, people blocking his escape in front and from the rear.
The crooks were not happy and came close to shooting him on the spot. After some fast talking, a smack to the back of his head with the butt of a gun, turning over a watch and a throw away wallet and the group finally let him go with Carlos thanking God for both his and Kamilla’s life.
But a lot has changed, with the World Cup coming in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016 Rio has cleaned up its act. Brazil is a country that avoided the debt crisis the rest of the world experienced in 2008 and is poised to take off in a new decade. A new mayor used the carrot and the stick approach to clean up the worst favellas and it has changed this city in a big way.
Rio is not cheap by any means, especially during Carnaval but we found that it can be very affordable by renting an apartment, doing some of your own cooking and using the Metro. It also immersed us into the culture and pulse of the city. The Metro is safe, clean and cheap, R2.80 ($1.75) to go anywhere in the city. It is easy to understand since there is only one main line running north and south through the city. You can purchase a prepaid card which can be reloaded at machines in the stations which keeps you from waiting in lines.
The flat that we rented was simple, clean and right beside a Metro station in Copacabana. The owner was friendly, helpful and even bought us tickets for the Sambadome. Kodos to Sergio with www.riopravoce.com.
We checked out the standard tourist hangouts like Corcovado (the statue of Christ R36 -$22.5 pp). Don’t listen to the bus drivers at Corcovado who will meet you as you try to buy train tickets and offer a quicker ride up to the statue. They charge R20 for the ride up, you still have to pay R26 to get into the park and then another R20 down. The train ride is less expensive and a nice ride; sit on the right side of the train to get a good view of the city. Go in the morning and get your ticket, generally you will have an hour or two to wait. Just walk down the hill and have a nice breakfast or lunch before your visit to Corcovado. If you get a clear day try to hit Sugar Loaf (R44-$28pp). For us finding a clear day was challenging.
Take the time to go to the beach in Copacabana and/or Ipanema, they are both great places to relax and do some people watching. Take your towels and your suntan lotion but no worries about beach chairs or umbrellas they are readily available for rent. Stop in a local bodega and pick up sandwich makings, most have wonderful fresh baked bread daily, and your refreshments and then enjoy the day. Take your time walking around the different praias (beaches), great little stores and restaurants.
Santa Teresa and Lapa are great places to see some beautiful old homes, buildings or antiques, nice shops a drop into a local hangout for a beer and some garlic wings. After a long day of sightseeing and shopping downtown stop in the Confeitaria Colombo, a bakery started in 1894 and still cranking out baked goodies, don’t miss a cappuccino and one of their incredible pastries. You won’t be disappointed.
Look for some of the small stands that sell handicrafts, we found the prices to be lower than the souvenir shops and the willingness to bargain. The Rio Sul Mall was a lot of fun to walk through to see what is fashionable and selling in Rio. The New York City Center in Tijuca is the largest mall I have ever seen, almost 1000 stores, you couldn’t see them all in a day if you tried. Both are great places to do some people watching. Stop and get some chocolate, there is a great chocolate shop in the mall.
Take the ferry over to Niterol late one afternoon, have dinner and then ask a cab driver to take you where you can see Rio from across the bay at night and finish with a night cap watching the city buzz at night. On a clear night you will see the Christ statue watching over Rio.
You can wrap up Rio with an early morning bike ride around the Lagoon. We tried the lake where you try your hand at paddle boats, canoes or a multitude of different styles of bikes, some will fit a whole family. We found a couple for R8 for a half hour and R2 for each additional half hour. The lake is about a five mile trek but got off the beaten path and rode around the Jardim Botanical Garden then happened upon a great little bistro called La Bicicletta www.labicicletta.com.br. An early morning assortment of bread, cheese, fruit, juice and café con leche was R35. What a great way to start a day!
The surprise of Rio came with the introduction to two little sweethearts, Kamilla and Gabriel, Carlos’ children. We spent a couple days observing Rio through the eyes of babes. It brought back the old days as they found fun in the little things, a bug crawling on the sand or a hideaway in the closed beach rental stand. Life can be so simple, you only have to slow it down.
Carlos was telling us a story about a man who traveled around the world to find the most intelligent man in the world. He found him on the top of the mountain in a small room with no furniture. The man asked the intelligent one, “Why do you have so few possessions?”
The elder answered, “You traveled all the way here to meet me, why do you have so few possessions with you?” The man responded, “Well because I am traveling and here for such a short time.” “As am I” responded the all knowing one.
Thank you Sergio, Thank you Carlos. We love you Kamilla and Gabriel. Rio, you have come so far continue your journey and the world will see you in 2014/2016. We look forward to your shining moment!