January – February
In a way, Rio de Janeiro has been something like a final destination for me during my entire trip, not only to celebrate New Year’s here but also to terminate this great adventure in this marvelous city. Featuring mountains in unique shapes, amazing beaches, a big and lush national park, tropical temperatures as well as a mix of extreme contrasts when it comes to people and conditions of life, Rio is one of the most interesting and diverse cities on the planet and really deserves the title “marvelous city”. Some guidebooks even suggest that it is not a coincidence that Christ himself stands on top of one of the highest peaks overlooking the city.
Sami and I end up spending various weeks here, taking our time exploring Rio over a period of one-and-a-half months. Thanks to our friends and lovely hosts Narda and Rafael, who I met in Peru about eight months ago, we can move around Rio and surrounding with very little luggage – as they agree to keep an eye on our big suitcases that are both missing wheels by now – and always have a very welcoming place to come back to after our trips to Búzios, Cabo Frio, Arraial do Cabo and Ilha Grande.
After getting to know some less touristy parts of the city we start approaching the more central ones where all the action is and realize how diverse the different neighbourhoods are. The southern areas Leblon and Ipanema with its long beach are home to some upscale hotels, boutique shops and fancier bars and restaurants and are considered to be the nicer and more peaceful parts of the city. Their world-famous neighbour Copacabana is a wild mix and a very spicy cocktail of a fine large beach, hundreds of hotels, souvenir shops, restaurants, beach bars, nightclubs, street vendors, travel agencies, markets and people walking up and down the beach trying to sell everything from grilled cheese and fruitsalad to bikinis and Caipirinhas. Furthermore, Cobacabana attracts thousands of people from all walks of life and all corners of the world, from local sun worshippers and high-end holiday makers to favela kids and international backpackers.
We also go for a walk along the beaches and water-edges of Botafogo and Flamengo, two neighbourhoods near Rio’s trademark – the Sugar Loaf. After some great views of the Sugar Loaf from the distance we obviously do not get around hiking up to it as well, or at least to its neighbour Morro da Urca. This sweaty walk is rewarded with some amazing views over the city with its beaches and the surrounding mountains with the Jesus statue on top of the highest one – Rio’s other trademark. The trail leads us through lush rainforest with monkeys and other wild animals and lets us forget that we are right in the middle of a huge city. It really is remarkable how quickly the scenery changes from busy big city life to tranquil tropical jungle.
On the way to the oldest part of the city, Santa Teresa, we are challenged again, as it is located on top of a little hill as well. Due to an accident a few years ago, the historic yellow tram only covers parts of the steep ascent these days so there is no other way but to climb up the stairs and winding roads by foot. Santa Teresa is a cute little neighbourhood though, with some very nice cafes, authentic souvenir shops, historic buildings and stunning panoramic views.
One of the many stairs up to Santa Teresa, the famous Lapa Steps, are a giant and quite impressive piece of art as the entire set of stairs is covered by tiles, ceramics and mirrors – mainly blue, green and yellow, the colours of the Brazilean flag. As its name indicates, the Lapa Steps connect Santa Teresa with the Lapa neighbourhood which is a mix of historic buildings, bohemian art, graffiti, street-food and -drinks, vibrant bars, live music and a very colourful cocktail of people of all kinds. This part of Rio is known for its bustling nightlife and it is not rare that things go a little wild at night, on weekends in particular.
Just north of Lapa is downtown and the central business district including many office buildings, banks and shopping areas, similar to many other big cities around the globe. Something that cannot be found everywhere though, is the Boulevard Olimpico, a former industrial port area with warehouses that recently has been turned into a lively and lovely boulevard with event locations, food-trucks a new museum, a huge aquarium and some giant street art.
In these weeks, we experience various forms of preparations for the biggest and most important event of the year – the Rio Carnival. Next to a lot of advertising and people talking about the upcoming event there are weekly training sessions of the best samba schools in the Sambodromo, a massive, stadium-like place where millions of people watch the world famous carnival parade every year. Even though it is relatively quiet and many costumes are still missing it is a good way to get an idea of what will happen during the actual carnival parade a couple of weeks later. Some other day, we stumble accross a “Murga”, a popular and funny music performance that reminds of the way carnival is celebrated in Uruguay. We join a mixed group of a few hundred people in a park who play music, dance, drink and have a good time and must admit that we like this form of carnival very much as it is a really relaxed and naturally happy atmosphere.
The last highlight and box to tick here in South America (on this trip) is a visit of the impressive statue of Christ located on a mountain high above the city. Even though there is a bigger and very similar statue in Bolivia (that hardly anybody knows about) the one in Rio is considered one of the new wonders of the world and is definitely worth a trip. Next to a beautiful museum about Tijuca National Park, which is home to the statue and supposedly the world’s biggest urban forest, there are hundreds of other visitors eager to take a closer look at this giant statue and, maybe even more importantly, to enjoy some absolutely stunning, panoramic views of Rio de Janeiro and its surrounding. These views are truly breathtaking and will certainly remembered for the rest of my life. It is one of these goosebump situations when finally seeing or beeing at a place that you know from hundreds of photos, magazines, movies and posters. As we head up there on our way back from Ilha Grande we are carrying some interesting equipment that is probably not exactly what the average tourist brings along. We wonder, for example, how many people had a broken tent and some snorkel gear in their luggage when visiting this place…
In the end of the day, which is one of our final days here in Brazil and one of the last days of my trip through South-America, we enjoy the sunset at Copacabana beach accompanied with a delicious Caipirinha that we spent our last few Brazilian bucks for. After a second and a third one we are about to find our way back to our friends’ apartment when we get offered another seductive Caipirinha. Since we do not have any cash left we spontaneously decide to let go of our beloved little tent, as we will not need it anymore, and trade it in for one last of these refreshing Brazilian signature cocktails. We are happy that our tent has found a new owner and the new owner seems happy about the deal and the fact that he got rid of his last Caipirinha, so we all go home with a smile on our faces…