We arrived into Santos Dumont airport on a domestic flight from Sao Paulo where we had connected from Iguazu, and took a public bus from there to Copacabana. The bus drove us through the Centro district of Rio, and numerous colonial buildings stood out gracefully amongst the concrete jungle of high rises. When we arrived in Copacabana, we made our first stop at the Rio tourist office. We had at least expected to get past Tourist Information before encountering our first linguistic hurdle, but the staff there spoke little to no English or Spanish. This was to prove a quite recurrent theme during our stay, although you can’t fault the Cariocas for effort in their helpfulness. We asked the lady at the tourist office if there were any no-go areas, and she waved her hand over half of the massive city map and said “it’s all safe”. Apparently, crime had ceased to be a problem in one of Latin America’s notoriously dangerous cities. A great start!
One of Rio’s lesser known features is that extensive stretches of rainforest still grow within this tropical capital’s city limits. And while there’s no rainforest without rain, we hadn’t expected our first night strolling through Ipanema to be spent running from canopy to canopy to find shelter from the heavy downpour. We took shelter in the formerly authentically famous and now touristy premises of the Garota de Ipanema cafe. It was here, in this cafe, that the legendary and multitalented Brazilian writer Vinicius de Moraes penned the lyrics to a song which Tom Jobim composed into the soundtrack that defines Rio to this day – Garota de Ipanema, The Girl from Ipanema.
Two caipirinhas later, we were back on the streets of Ipanema making our way to Brasileirinho. Brasileirinho is the sister restaurant of the better known Casa de Feijoada, but is about half the price, and is supposed to work out of the same kitchen. We took a table at the window and ordered the signature dish, Feijoada. Feijoada has its origins in Brazil’s colonial past, when the slaves, too poor to have meat, would collect leftovers from the master’s kitchen and stew them in beans. Leftovers generally took the form of ears, tails, feet and some similarly tasty bits left over for sausages and jerky. Since then, the humble Feijoada has climbed the social ladder to become one of Brazil’s most famous culinary delights. First out was a delicious bean soup served with chilis, which our Chilean waiter warned us to use with caution. Caution was optional and we were soon both breathing fire. And then came the full spread of a bowl of bean stew bubbling with the aforementioned meats, some crispy pork rind, extra beans, deep-fried yucca, rice, some farofa to thicken the sauce, and some slices of orange to aid digestion, and some lemon-infused cachaca which also helped digestion. It was a feast, a beggar’s banquet!
Brazil’s culinary richness did not stop there. Wherever you go in Brazil, you will be treated to some of the freshest and most abundant fruit on the planet – papaya, mango, strawberries, melons… and juice stores abound on almost every street corner. A little more upscale than your regular juice store are the palatial surroundings of the grand Confeitaria Colombo (http://www.confeitariacolombo.com.br), a belle époque café similar to the Cafe Tortoni in Buenos Aires, more Paris or Vienna than Rio de Janeiro. The Confeitaria Colombo provided a ray of sunshine on a second continuous dull day in Rio de Janeiro, some sort of record I’m sure. Ninfa opted for a selection of delicious Salgadinhos, deep-fried, salty, breaded balls stuffed with cod, prawn, crab or chicken among others. I chose one of the afternoon teas, the Cha Virginia Lane, which included more mouthwatering Salgadinhos, and a selection of the house pastries – Virginia had taste! Confeitaria Colombo is in the Centro area, and because of the poor weather, we spent a lot of our second day in Rio around here. The receptionist at our hotel had told us that this was a safe area, although his interpretation of safe was along the lines of “don’t wear a watch, and don’t bring a wallet”. Isn’t that the definition of dangerous?Our next morning, a sunny morning!, we visited Corcovado, the site of the majestic Cristo Redentor statue, one of the landmarks of the world. A small train took us up the side of the towering mountain to the feet of the statue overlooking the city of Rio de Janeiro and the Guanabara Bay. The view was fantastic – tropical island mountains rising out of the bay, the long stretches of Copacabana and Ipanema beach, the lagoon, the bay of Botafogo and the domestic flights swerving around the Pao de Acucar (Sugarloaf) mountain. I don’t know if Jesus was consulted on his view, but it is divine! About 15 minutes after we arrived, a bank of cloud blew over covering us on almost every side – time to go. From Corcovado, we made our way to nearby Santa Teresa. Santa Teresa is a formerly noble and now bohemian district that sits atop one of the mountains near the centre of Rio. We strolled along its streets, its well-supplied fruit shops, its designer boutiques (all local), and quirky cafés. We had been hoping to hitch a ride on one the famous bondinhos, Rio’s only existing tram service, but the schedule seemed to running a little slow. Instead, we continued downhill and on to the massive mosaic of the Escalera de Selaron. The brainchild of an eccentric Chilean artist, Jorge Selarón, the Escalera is a staircase of over 200 steps which he has been decorating with tiles for over 20 years. It’s a kaleidoscope of colour and you could spend hours admiring the tiles from all over the world – there’s even a few from Honduras and from Ireland. All tiles are donated, and the artist sells a few himself from his workshop along the stairway. We were lucky enough to bump into the man himself at work. Our wandering ended nearby under another of Rio’s landmarks, the Arcos de Lapa, an aqueduct which connects lower Rio Centro with the hills of Santa Teresa. At that moment, it was time for the beach. There was a hot tropical sun, and we weren’t taking it for granted.
We spent the rest of that evening and the following day beachfront along some of the most famous beaches in the world. What go by the name of promenades in other cities could best be described as catwalks in Rio, as the “tall, tanned, young and lovely” Cariocas, stroll along the trademark black and white mosaic footpaths which line the white sand beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema. We went swimming at sunset in the furious waves that crash in onto the sand. I asked a lifeguard if it was safe to swim in the waves, and he said no. So I asked if maybe it was better in Ipanema. He said no, it was worse. Even with no watch and no wallet? We still couldn’t resist taking a dip, but the strength of the ocean commands respect. We were being thrown around like pinballs only in the foam of the waves. It was awesome! On our last day, we did the same in Ipanema, and a little bit of last minute shopping for souvenirs of a city we both loved. And finally, on our last night, we met up with Abdes, an old friend of Ninfa’s who had also met us in Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic. He had just been transferred to Rio for his work, and we caught up over a few caipirinhas on what had been an eventful three months for all of us since last we met.
So what did the jury decide? Did Rio top the charts? Well, the jury’s still out on that one. This was my second time to Rio, and I still would go back at the drop of a hat. You don’t really need to do much in Rio to love it. It’s something to be felt as much as it is to be seen. So it’s still my number one, if there’s sun! And it was probably the cloudy weather in Rio and the warmth of welcome of the South Africans that kept Cape Town at the top of Ninfa’s chart. But we’ve agreed that 6 months in each city would be a workable compromise.
Check out our photos here, and read our next post for news from colonial treasure and cultural hotspot, Salvador do Bahia.
Feijoada is traditionally only served on Saturdays, and you will find a much better choice of places to eat on that day. Brasileirinho serves feijoada every day, and is less formal and less expensive than Casa de Feijoada – perfect for a dish which may not be to the liking of everyone.
Book your train ticket for Corcovado on the internet and try to be there early or late to avoid the crowds. Check the weather forecast too because if it’s cloudy, you’re not going to see anything.