Having spent the first 18 years of my life there, I could easily write books and books about Rio. Fortunately though, I've recently had the opportunity of seeing it through a different angle, whilst paying it a few visits during the one year I spent travelling in Latin America.
In all fairness, I did visit Rio nearly every single year during the 11 years I spent living in Canada, but those short trips were mostly spent visiting friends and family, and I didn't quite look at it through the eyes of a traveller. When I landed in Rio in May 2012, I had been on the road backpacking the world for 14 months, and I couldn't help but to automatically start comparing the city and all it has to offer with many of the places I had been travelling through.
I had been away from the local, everyday life of people my age for quite a while, but it didn't take me too long at all to embrace my inner "Carioca" (term used to describe people from Rio) get acquainted with the city's lifestyle as well as the current nightlife and music scene. To make things more interesting, I happened to host quite a few foreigners I had met during my travels that were passing by, and that forced me to put into perspective the aspects of the Rio a visitor should see: the highlights be covered during a visit, its logistics such as safety and public transportation, suggested walking tour itineraries, proper favela visits and so on. Overall, through the good, the bad and the ugly, as a Brazilian expat, a Canadian backpacker or a globetrotting-local-culture-enthusiast, my city has left a very strong impression on me.
Rio as the world sees it and what makes it special
In my opinion, the most striking of Rio de Janeiro's many features, that makes it one of the World's top must-see cities, is its outstanding geographical, natural beauty. Few are other parts of the world that host such fantastic landscape, holding a major city surrounded by mountains, right on the coastline, with endless kilometres of beaches and, to top it all off, national parks of tropical forests throughout the city.
It is also what makes many of the city's must-see attractions rather unique: The statue of "Christ the Reedemer" is not just a massive statue on the top of a hill overlooking a beautiful bay. One can choose between going up to the top on a short train ride, or to hike through the beautiful Tijuca Forest to get there, passing through areas of amazing fauna and flora as well as waterfalls. Same goes for the Sugar Loaf, another one of the city's many postcards: While most visitors choose to take the thrilling gondola ride linking the two mountains, in order to reach the top, the options of hiking up and rappelling down often attracts the most adventurous travellers.
History from its Portuguese heritage can be found all around, but its higher concentration of Colonial Portuguese architecture can be found in the old centre. Rio is divided in many different regions. Most of the activities the majority of tourists engage in when visiting the city, such as hanging out in the famous Ipanema and Copacabana beaches, shopping or enjoying its world renowned gastronomy; are all located in the South Zone. It is the area with the highest concentration of wealth, but just like anywhere else in Brazil, filled by contrasts, which can be observed by any visitor almost as soon as they leave the international airport.
The actual city centre area is divided between many commercial buildings, not as prestigious shopping areas and many historical cobblestoned squares, containing old churches and buildings. I had the chance of, in a way, "guiding" many walking tours through the centre, and most people are rather impressed by the sights of buildings such as the National Library, the Municipal Theatre, and of course, the famous Arches of Lapa.
Just the very thought of the Lapa neighbourhood gives me goosebumps these days. Some of the most fun-filled nights of my entire life were spent there, dancing until sunrise.
It was whilst trying to explain to a fellow traveller what makes the nightlife there so special that I came to the conclusion that it is the extreme democracy of the area, which makes it extremely diverse, in many aspects: it's fun for everyone, regardless of age group, level of income or sexual orientation.
As soon as the sun comes down, the neighbourhood gets packed with people strolling around the streets, and either just enjoying the many live music acts all around while buying street food, stall-sold Caipirinhas and canned drinks, or going to some of Rio's most traditional Samba Clubs, such as the beautiful Rio Scenarium - a building rich in history with incredible decoration, amazing music concerts and prices that match its standards. One could go to an evening in Lapa and spend as little as £5 or as much as £100+ - (and everything in the middle) and possibly have equal amounts of fun!
My favourite activity was always just cruising around, hopping from one street performer act to another, but the concentration of bars, restaurants, clubs and concert halls is such that one can't help but end up venturing into a different direction that what was originally planned before leaving home.
No true Carioca leaves home before 10:30PM, and it is not unusual to return after sunrise, maybe after having had an espresso in on of the many traditional bakeries found all around, once again, from extremely simple to highly sophisticated.
And this is just one of the city's many neighbourhoods hosting a very lively nightlife…
The word "Favela" is quite well known all over the world these days, and unfortunately; due to sensationalist media and misrepresentation, it carries a stigma rather different than its reality. While some favelas do carry a much higher level of violence than others, they are still just neighbourhoods and communities of their own, and although they do share common aspects such as a high level of poverty and the existence of drug trafficking (which is what generates the violence found there, between drug lords and the police), they are inhabited by hardworking, honest people, that commute "downhill" for work and school everyday, sharing that "reality" of Rio with others, that never really climb up and have no idea of what their reality is like.
I have had the privilege of visiting many favelas throughout my life, through the Social Work projects my mum coordinates, through acquaintances and most recently, as part my attempts to see the world as it is, observing and appreciating local culture. I felt absolutely safe, but mind you, I knew where to go and what to avoid. I would simply climb up, ask people where I could have a coffee, and take pictures of the most beautiful panoramic views Rio de Janeiro has to offer. People are much kinder "up there" than "down below", and their humility filled my heart with joy. It never took long for an invitation for coffee to come about, and for conversations to arise, about their lives, my life, my travels and so on.
Over the past few years, many tour companies started offering "Favela Tours", where foreigners would climb up on jeeps resembling some sort of human safari. It was highly frowned upon by Rio's intellectual society, but soon after, actual favela community association initiatives started to arise, where local people would serve as guides, providing visitors a much more authentic insight into what life really is like in the notorious neighbourhoods often referred to as slums, but in fact, are just a display of the wealth discrepancy found in one of the world's most up and coming economical powers.
I am not suggesting a visitor to Rio should simply venture up to a Favela having done no research or having made no prior contact with locals, I am just suggesting that with a little bit of research, the experience can become a lot more enriching and truly unforgettable. If anything, the pictures taken from up there will likely be some of the most beautiful taken in their entire trip!
The Recent changes and the World Cup
Rio has always been a highlight for many visitors travelling to South America, but recently it has certainly become more exposed than ever, due to the much-celebrated FIFA World Cup Games 2014. Although many Cariocas have mixed feelings about it, in a duality between supporting football – a big part of the country's National identity – and disapproving how much-needed money is being, as it is seen by some, invested wastefully when it could be used toward improving Education, Health and so much more.
One way or another, one can not deny that the past few years have brought many changes, most of which benefited tourism a lot, in several ways. The city is a lot safer. Transportation infra-structure has improved tremendously. A lot more people are speaking English as a second language and travelling around is altogether a lot easier than it ever was. It did come with a price though, and most travellers will leave Rio complaining about its high prices, which is yet heavier on local people. Not high compared to European standards, but certainly high for South America.
Experiences not to be missed:
Without even venturing into the crazy world of Carnaval or New Year's Eve in Rio - those festivals are worthy of, minimally, dedicated blog postings of their own - I feel obliged to suggest a few of my very favourite Rio activities, ranging from touristic highlights to off the beaten track options:
- A visit to The Sugar Loaf. Preferably, just before sunset. Absolutely outstanding view.
- Cycling or walking around the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, another beautiful geographical landmark, filled with kiosks and bars by night and joggers during the day.
- Beach-combing in Ipanema. Or Copacabana. Or in the less crowded Praia do Leme.
- Hiking up to Pedra da Gavea. Maybe Paragliding on your way down, depending on how adventurous one feels like being!
- Spending at least one evening in Lapa, with a mix of simply strolling around and venturing into a beautiful, higher-end, authentic Samba Club for amazing music and dancing.
- Walking around the Historical Centre of town, visiting the Candelaria Church and the Arcos da Lapa.
- Spending an evening at the Bohemian artistic neighbourhood of Santa Teresa, either listening to live Samba or just having beers before the sunset.
- Watching a football match at Maracana Stadium, for and adrenaline-filled evening. Tickets are often easy to get and come in many different price ranges.
Changes will not stop for a while, as the city will soon host the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. Real Estate and overall costs have reached such heights though; that it makes one wonder if that will stop increasing anytime soon. Focusing on the positive aspects of Rio's many recent changes, I surely hope that the overall structure and living conditions of local people improve after so much exposure, and that having the world come to their city also broadens up their horizons, opening their minds and hearts to embrace the world and its diversity - a world that seems to be falling in love with Rio more and more by the day, puzzled by its madness, but charmed by its beauty.