2011, 27th - 30th December: Paraty, Brazil
Most of the time was spent in Rio, apart from three days in Paraty between Christmas and New Year. During my time in Rio I stayed with a host called Tony in his apartment in Santa Teresa.
For the full complement of photos of my time in Rio de Janeiro, follow this link:
For the full complement of photos of my time in Paraty, follow this link:
Rio de Janeiro - City Features
The topographical setting of Rio naturally lends the city a unique character, with the main contributors being the coastline, the mountains and the jungle parks. It is set around a large bay which the first European explorers found in the month of January and mistaking the bay for a river named it Rio de Janeiro (River of January). The coastline has numerous arcs - large and small, which provide many sheltered beaches such as Copacobana, Ipanema and Flamengo. Since you are never far from a beach in Rio, beach life is a big part of leisure time.
One of Rio´s Many Bays (Botafogo)
As well as its coastline, the mountains contribute much to the character of the city, which range from large rocky outcrops to long ridges with sections up to 800 metres high. Virtually all districts are flanked by mountains in some way. The most famous are of course Corcovado(where the statue of Christ the Redeemer is) and Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain). The most affluent neighbourhoods, such as Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon and the business district of Centro, are built on the flat areas near the bays. Apart from Santa Teresa, that leaves all the steep hills (and any gaps in the conurbation) to be infilled by favelas. If there is a gap, they will find it and be no respectors of proximity to posh neighbourhoods.
Any mountainsides not found by the favelas are covered in forest (many are protected by national park status - e.g. Tijuca). So if you do not fancy the beach or it is too hot in the midday sun you can always walk in the shade of the forests and cool off in one of the waterfalls. I think that it is the fact that wherever you are in Rio you have ready access to a natural feature (beach, mountain , forest, waterfall) that keeps the people of the city relaxed and more chilled that those in land-locked cities such as (reportedly) São Paulo. Some of the spirit of Rio may also be down to its favelas, I think that though they have a problematic history, they bring a degree of realism to the city as any comfortably financed people cannot pretend that their city is not shared with the poor (there is always a slum not too far away).
View from Perira da Silva Favela Towards Botafogo District
Many of the more affluent districts (such as Leblon, Copacabama and Ipanema) do not have the most inspiring architecture as they are mostly made up of high rise apartment blocks. My host told me that these districts used to contain old town houses, but these were gradually sold-off to developers.
One of the few remaining residential districts that predominantly has its original architecture is Santa Teresa where I stayed with my host, Tony. This suburb is built along a ´mountain´ ridge that effectively has Christ the Redeemer at one end and the district of Lapa at the base of the other. Santa Teresa is a maze of steep and winding cobbled streets . Tony´s appartment block has great views to the north (Centro, Zona Norte and the bay). On the other side of the ridge are views to the south to Ipanema and Pão de Açúcar. Some of the steep sides of the ridge are covered in favelas - in fact Tony´s place overlooked one. So on Christmas Eve (which is a bigger celebration in Brazil that Christmas day) a cocophany of tacky music and the bang of firecrackers and fireworks made for a jumpy noise-scape through the evening and night, with the next morning heralded by dogs barking and cockrels crowing.
Hillside View in Santa Teresa
The favelas (slum districts) of the city are as much a feature of Rio as the well-to-do high-rise affluent districts. One has to admire the tenacity of those with little or no money squeezing a little homested into any gap they can find (generally tiny and on the side of a steep hill) and their bare-faced cheek for building a house whether they have permission or not (not to mention the illegal connections to the electrical grid). That said, I would not want to live next to one. The structure of pretty much all the favela houses seems to be a concrete base, engineering brick construction and a flat concrete roof (from where they can fly their kites right next to a high voltage power line).
Reportedly, things have improved in recent years, with some favelas achieving a degree of domesticity. One in Santa Teresa even has hostel accommodation, though some favelas are still best avoided. It seems as if the police have had some success in calming things down. In the past, most favelas were no-go areas for the police and so these districts were well and truly ruled by the drug dealers. In those years, canvasing politicians during an election campaign would seek ´permission´ from a drug dealer before entering a favela. Tony said that in the past, because the police could not enter the favela below his appartment block, they would try to take-out the drug dealers with snipers positioned on the main road above the favela. During the ensuing gun battles, bullets hit and entered Tony´s appartment (he has a collection of spent bullets and a lampshade with bullet holes in it to prove this). Things are much calmer now, though there was the brief sound of distant gunfire one evening.
It is worth noting that the rougher side of life in Rio´s favelas is of course a fact of life in the city, but I never felt uneasy or threatened while in the non-favela districts. Also, with Tony I met a number of people from the favelas near his home and they were really sound and friendly people - though of course we were sensible enough to avoid going deep into some of the less-civilised slum districts.
An interesting strategy to ´open-up´ the favelas and reduce the grip of the drug dealers on these slum districts can be found in Complexo do Alemange. The area has a number of rocky hills in its midst and the authorties have constructed a cable car system between them with four stations. Tony and I took a ride one day which provided a birds-eye view of the slums and an appreciation of just how densely the housing is packed (very tightly with the only real open space in some parts being the flat rooftops). One could appreciate why it can be / was so difficult for the police to gain safe access to the rabbit warren like maze of little streets and alleyways spread across steep-sided slopes. This particular project has had some success. If nothing else, the inhabitants of these districts now have a good link to the road and rail network. The district now appears to be less of a ´fortress zone´ where the drug dealers rule (though I am not a local so cannot really comment too much). The authorities are obviously keen to keep things in the improved state as armed soldiers monitor the cable car stations. These guys also pop into the favela for a drive around (aided by the concrete access roads that were not there originally - another ´opening-up´ strategy).
View of Favela in Complexo do Alemange from Cable Car
The Perira da Silva favela on the south side of the ridge on which Santa Teresa is built has a reasonably homely feel and the people we met there were very friendly. It has great views across to Ipanema (affluent area with high-rise appartment blocks) - providing a great visual contrast between rich and poor neighbourhoods. The favela even has a hostel. It also has a little community project (called Project Morrinho) where some locals had the ingenious idea of making a model of a favela out of the same engineering bricks they use to construct the houses in the real slums - with one engineering brick representing a house and its square holes the windows.
Tony had some spare time during my stay in Rio, and he was kind enough to take me on a number of tours. This gave me a great feel of the overall city as well as providing the opportunity to visit areas I would unlikely have done as a lone tourist.
The districts covered included Santa Teresa, Lapa, Centro, Central do Brasil, Leblon, Ipanema, Copacabana, Botafogo, Flamengo, Catete, Gloriá, Lagoa, Praça XV, Sahara and others. We also visited the city of Niterói which is located the other side of the bay. Included in the tours were some favelas as well as a shady and very grubby red light area (purely for looking at another side of life only - not touching with a barge pole springs to mind). Also included was a dip in the Baineiras waterfalls in Parque da Cidade.
The Classic Sights
I also took the time to fit in some classic Rio tourist sights such as Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, the statue of Christ the Redeemer and the Sugarloaf mountain.
Statue of Christ the Redeemer
New Years Eve in Rio
Despite some minor reservations I had about being a lone tourist in the midst of 2 million plus revellers in a city with a reputation, I concluded that I could not be in Rio on this big day and not experience the world famous celebration on Copacabana beach.
After a real crowd crush to get to the seafront, I arrived just in time at 11:50pm and grabbed some beer from one of the many street vendors - incidentally, sadly the mainstream Brazilian beers have the taste and body of a partial vacuum which is becoming rather tiresome after a months worth of them. At the zero hour the night erupted with the start of a 15 minute firework display. Suffice it to say, the locals greeted this with true Brazilian enthusiasm, which all made for a jovial atmosphere.
Just After Midnight on New Year´s Eve on Copacabana Beach
As it rained on and off all night and being a true Brit I foolishly decided that it would be a good idea to wear a raincoat - so no doubt I looked a true tourist tit. Maybe that is why I had no trouble with pickpockets and other street detritous as being a tall, short-haired, raincoated bloke I may have looked like a copper. Anyway, the raincoat is long so any pickppocket could only have reached the bum-bag beneath with an unwelcome hand brushing past sack or crack, which I like to think I would have noticed.
After the fireworks the crowds thinned which was a welcome relief. I wandered along the seafront to sample the various happenings. The music on the big stages I came across was not of interest to me as it was rather cheesy. So for me the highlights were the samba groups that set themselves up on the pavement. One was really good and had plenty of percussion and a vocalist on a megaphone to get the crowd going. True to form, all the locals knew the words and sang and danced along. The rhythms were very infectious and I enjoyed dancing too.
On my way home much later via the district of Lapa I found one solitary bar that was still open after 5am, and finished off with a drink to the sounds of some bloke on a keyboard and more samba-infused (but slightly cheesy this time) music.
My walk home up the steep cobbled streets of Santa Teresa was in the light of new year´s day which was a good ending to my celebrations.
As an interlude to the time I spent in Rio during Christmas and New Year, I spent three days in the small historic town of Paraty which is approximately 250 km south west of the city of Rio de Janeiro. The cobbled streets are almost rock-like as the cobblestones are huge and pretty roughly laid, so one´s eyes spend a lot of time looking downwards while walking the streets if one is to avoid stubbed toes and falling head over heels.
The coast at Paraty is a weave of bays and little islands which makes for a great day out in a group on a hired boat. Alas the day of my boat trip was grey and sometimes drizzling so the rich blues of the water normally present on a sunny day were left to my imagination. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed swimming, jumping off the roof of the boat into the water as wells as having lunch with the others in the group.
On my other full day in Paraty I took one of the many ´Jeep Tours´ on offer where you are driven around different spots in the hills to the north of the town. We visited a number of waterfalls where you can swim. The most memorable flows down a wide and long smooth rock - making a great natural slide. I was in my element and slid down many times (after the initial shock during the first time at just how fast you get before plunging into the pool at the bottom). At another waterfall, by getting right under the main flow I had a nice back, neck and shoulder massage from the pounding of the falling water. We also visited cachaça distilleries (free tasting abounded). Cachaça is made by adding yeast to juice extracted from sugar cane. The fermentation only takes 35 hours. This forms the pure (clear) variety. Other types are on offer, including those aged in wooden barrels (for around 18 months) which adds a nice flavour as well as a brown hue. The aged ones taste (to me) like a very strong very dry sherry. Other varieties (for girly consumers) are sweetened with fruit.
Tim on Waterfall Slide Near Paraty