On a scale from 1 to 10, Rio de Janeiro’s intensity is an 11. And that’s not even during Carnaval time! We had originally planned to do Carnaval in Rio but opted against it for a few reasons. We want to make it down to Patagonia in March (before it gets too cold) and the Rio hostels more than quadruple their prices and have minimum 6 night stays during Carnaval. We also wanted to experience Rio’s sights without the Carnaval crowds. We stayed longer than expected in Rio. There’s so much to see and do and we met some awesome new friends in our hostel. Rio has something for everyone and the city is continuing to improve and grow dramatically, especially because Rio is the site of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. Needless to say, their economy is booming.
This has to be one of the highlights of our trip for me so far. And one of the craziest things I’ve ever done (other than marry Bryan and go on this trip!). 🙂 We drove to the very top of one of the jagged mountains overlooking Rio. After getting all strapped in, we did some practice runs with our instructor. The start was the only scary part – we got a running start down a ramp and jumped off the cliff into the air. My heart was pounding as I watched Bryan go first – running and disappearing off the side of the cliff. I went next and it was the best feeling to jump in the air – we soared like a bird. We were so high that we looked down on some of the mountains, sky scrapers, and all of the birds below us. I didn’t want it to ever end. After a few minutes we circled around some upscale high-rise apartments with pools and people on their roofs. I was disappointed that the hang-gliding area was on the opposite end of Rio as the Christ the Redeemer statue. I had envisioned circling around the enormous Jesus and giving his outstretched hand a high five. 🙂 We circled over the ocean and landed on the sandy beach. Bryan landed first and didn’t see me land on a different section of the beach. There was a hang-glider that came in with a crash landing and he thought it was me. (Don’t worry, it wasn’t me and everyone was okay).
Favelas are basically the slum, shanty-towns of cities in Brazil. The hills of Rio are covered with more than 200 separate favelas. Everyone tells you to stay out of the favelas, but times have changed in Rio. Favela tourism is becoming increasingly popular. After spending a few nights in Copacabana, we decided to spend two nights at a hostel in a favela. I was hesitant when we first arrived. The place was like an uphill maze and it was exhausting trying to find our way. But all of favela residents were so friendly and helpful – attempting to greet us in English and pointing out the confusing path to our hostel. The best part of our favela-stay was the view. Strangely enough, the slums of Rio all have million dollar views of the city since they are situated high in the hills. We also took a favela tour through some of the other favelas. I had expected to hear about all the major crimes and maybe even witness some sketchy stuff. It was the complete opposite of what I expected. The residents were thrilled to see us. One of the men greeted us all individually and kissed my hand calling me “princessa” and “amiga.” We bought some gorgeous, authentic artwork and delicious caipirinhas. The favelas of Rio actually have very low crime levels; much lower than that of resort areas like Copacabana and Ipanema. The favelas don’t want to attract the presence of the police. The gang-controlled favelas have much less petty crime than the police-controlled favelas. There is gang-activity and drug-trafficking but that’s not the norm among residents. They have a strong sense of community and depend on one another daily. Many residents don’t want to move from the favelas even if they can afford to because of the strong ties with neighbors and because it’s a short commute to their work. The favelas aren’t safe in all cities in Brazil though. Rio’s are relatively safe because rival gangs do not live within the same favela. Finding yourself in the area between two favelas is probably the most dangerous due to the chance of being caught in rival gang cross-fire. If you are interested in a favela tour in Rio check out www.favelatour.com.br Half of the money from tours goes towards an excellent school for favela kids that we visited.
Let me preface this by saying I’m a big beach snob. I really only like pristine, deserted beaches. I did enjoy our time on Copacabana and Ipanema beaches though. They were far from deserted but they were clean, especially for beaches in a major city. I was surprised that the water was freezing (even now during summertime in Brazil). The beaches were definitely entertaining with the people-watching and endless array of walking vendors selling everything. It was the loudest beach I’ve ever been to, especially on weekends and holidays. Ipanema has a few sections of the beach – the gay section (clearly marked with rainbow flags), the family section, the “Rastafarian” section (clearly marked with a distinct smell), and the hot girl section. I wonder which section Bryan wanted to sit in? He had expected “hundreds of hot girls frolicking,” so he was a little disappointed by the amount. They do all wear Brazilian style swimsuits (basically thongs), and this goes for all women regardless of size. They all seem very proud of their bodies, which is refreshing to see (some of the time). And if you aren’t sure which type of sunscreen to protect your scantily clad body, don’t worry. There are UV meters along the beach telling you which level of sunscreen to use for every different skin type (even the gringos).
Throughout Brazil, it’s been evident that they LOVE their soccer. This was clearly obvious along Ipanema and Copacabana beaches where dozens of futbol (soccer) goals were lined up for players of all ages. There are also volleyball nets along the beaches, but if you stop to watch they aren’t playing your normal version of volleyball – they don’t use their hands! They use soccer moves to get the ball back and forth over the net.
There’s also a little game that’s popular that I played with our new friend Joe from Belgium – it’s kind of like a hacky-sack, feather birdie thing that you smack back and forth. By the way, we referred to Joe as “Jason Bourne” – he’s fluent in 7 languages and working on his 8th and 9th. He became fluent in Portuguese after 2 weeks of 2-hour classes. His English is better than ours! :-). While sitting at Ipanema beach with our new friends, we received an impromptu Portuguese lesson from a 10-year old Brazilian boy. He was so fluent in English that he barely had an accent. I’m really starting to feel like a stupid American around some of these people!
The sketchy Lapa section of RIO is a blast! There is a huge block party every Friday and Saturday nights. With all the bars, there is a lot of activity every night of the week. Just don’t have anything in your pocket when you visit this area at night. I actually caught a girl with her hand in my pocket while I was walking through a crowd. I looked at her and slapped her shoulder. She slapped my shoulder back, we stared at each other and then I walked away. She didn’t look like the type of girl I should mess with and she had a posse of rough looking friends. She was a pretty pitiful pick-pocketer – she didn’t even find the $2 Real I had in my pocket. We heard another story from someone in our hostel who had his camera stolen right out of his hand while he was taking a picture. Just don’t take any valuables and hide your money and Lapa should be fine.
Our night in Lapa became more eventful when we ran into the two Argentinians from our hostel. They are 20 years old and came to Rio for two weeks with the goal of partying hard every night. They stayed in Bryan’s room for the first three nights and Bryan was woken up at around 5 a.m. when they came back to the room singing and shouting his name. We are amazed that they manage to make it back to the hostel every night and have only gotten lost once. We played pool with them in Lapa and one of them managed to miss all of the balls but shoot his Caipirinha off the table. They are definitely entertaining and have an intensity level as high as Rio.
Lapa isn’t just for partying though. One of the area’s major attractions is the world famous set of stairs Escadaria Selarón. Chilean artist Jorge Selarón has spent the last few decades turning a long, dilapidated set of stairs into a beautiful work of art. The stairs are decorated with colorful ceramic tiles from all over the world. The stairs have been featured on music videos by Snoop Dog and U2, as well as footage and commercials from Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s, American Express, Amazing Race, National Geographic, Time, Playboy, and many more. Jorge hangs out at the stairs most of the day and evening. He continues to paint portraits, work on the stairs, and chat with visitors. Jorge especially enjoys painting pregnant women in the favelas. He claims to have painted over 30,000 paintings of pregnant women.
We spent our final day of our week-long stay in Rio at Ipanema beach with our new friends and then had dinner at a Brazilian Churrascaria (steakhouse). These places aren’t like Outback though. We purposely skipped lunch so we would be super hungry. Several waiters parade through the restaurant with huge skewers of all different types of meat. There was every kind of meat you could imagine; even chicken hearts which we turned down but some of our dining companions said they were delicious. The waiters slice the meat with huge knives onto your plate until you can’t eat any more. After our incredible week in Rio de Janeiro, we are on the ferry to Ihla Grande. The island is described as pure paradise – white sandy beaches, warm, clear waters, and much less people.