After yet another bus ride –this time a lot shorter and not overnight, we arrived at the awkwardly located bus terminal of Rio de Janeiro. A brief struggle to obtain two Rio Transport Cards (which turned out incredibly useful later), a tram ride, a metro ride, and a taxi boat trip later, we arrived on the shores of Ilha Primeira. It was here, on this island northeast of the Barra da Tijuca neighborhood , where we would stay for the next few days with our Couchsurfing host Claudio and his dog Thor, who only peed on our (Emily’s) bag twice.
Claudio proved to be an truly amazing host and welcomed us with the first of many great vegetarian meals he would make for us (our stomachs were still sore from the overindulgence of meat in Buenos Aires and Blumenau). There was no time to relax though, since Claudio had a gig as photographer in a theater in the picturesque Santa Teresa neighbourhood and it was time for him to go. We tagged along with him to the theater in the Parque das Ruinas and as “friends of the staff,” we had an exclusive 360 degree nighttime view over all Rio’s highlights (Christ the Redeemer, Sugarloaf Mountain, and Copacabana beach), normally closed to the public at this hour.
We decided to miss out on the show in Portuguese, a language which needless to say, we did not comprehend at all, but sounded to us vaguely like Spanish but with a few pebbles stuck in the throat to make constant “ch”/”sh” sounds. Instead, we resolved to explore the neighborhood instead. In the heart of all the posh, but not always well-maintained estates, and many bars of the Santa Teresa lay the Escadaria do Selarón, an art project from the 90s by Jorge Selarón that covered a long stretch of stairs with paintings and tiles from all over the world. Down the stairs we wandered towards Lapa and up into Santa Teresa again.
All in all, it was a nice walk in what we realized later to be not too safe of a neighbourhood. At least that was what the various posters on lampposts told us, warning us to stay alert due to frequent crime in the area, which we only noticed on the way back. Despite this minor scare caused by the posters, we were fine. We met up with Claudio again and had some late night Brazilian snacks, including sacolé, a sweet avocado ice cream (Brazilians prefer their avocado sweet and not savory) and a pastry out of cassava and coconut. Mmm.
The next day we decided to make optimal use of the new infrastructure built in Rio in the run-up to the Olympics: a bicycle path along the coast called the Tim Maia Ciclovia. Together with Claudio on bikes that he loaned us, we rode from the ramp where the water taxi dropped us off yesterday to the famous Ipanema and Copacabana beaches. Officially, the bicycle path is still closed after the August 2016 accident when a large wave hit the path, taking a part of it down and killing two cyclists. The path had since been repaired, but concrete slabs on the path were still in place to dissuade people from using it. This meant that we, and many others that day, had to lift out bikes over a handful of these blocks. All of this notwithstanding, this path did offer us some great views over the city and was a very convenient way of transport in the massive metropolis of Rio de Janeiro.
In the regular breaks we took to cool down from the warm Rio weather, we drank coconut water from a fresh coconut on the beach, ate truly fantastic açaí at Casa do Açaí (as we could tell from its crowd, it was truly a Rio institution), went to a dentist to fix Emily’s wisdom tooth problem, and visited the somewhat heart-shaped lagoon in Rio. Without the bikes, we would not have been able to cram so much in one day. That night, in true Rio tradition, we climbed Pedra do Arpoador between Ipanema and Copacabana and applauded the setting sun. That night, after buying our bus tickets out of Rio, we made good use of one of the great features of the Rio public transport system. After 9pm, we were allowed to take ours bike into the metro (only the last carriage). This saved us a a lot of peddling in the dark back to our island.
On our final day in Rio we decided it was time to climb one of Rio’s many hills, and we picked the Two Brothers or Dois Irmãos as our hill of the day. However, before doing so, we went to have a lavish breakfast with the mom and sister of one of Laurent’s former classmates, two Rio locals. After joining the queue that had already formed before Confeitaria Colombo, a famous breakfast place with a great view over the city skyline and Copacabana beach, opened at 10am, we waited a bit until we were told our table would be ready in 40 minutes. This gave us enough time to explore Forte de Copacabana where Confeitaria Colombo is located. Eventually, we enjoyed our breakfast and went off to our hike. Both ladies and the Uber driver they called for us to bring us to the trail were hesitant to send two gringos to the heart of a favela, where the trail started. Despite their reservations, we decided to go.
To reach the trailhead of this 45 minute steep hike, we went to the entrance of the Vidigal favela and took one of the many minibuses that looked awkwardly placed in its narrow, traffic-filled and very steep streets, to the campo de futebol. Behind this soccer field the trail immediately started ascending and offered great views to all the main attractions in Rio, as well as the Rocinha and Vidigal favela.
Later, conversations and our own experience in the area confirmed that the Vidigal favela is one of the ‘safest,’ and definitely most visited and accessible favelas in Rio. Although perhaps it would not have been the best place to roam alone at night especially as non-Portuguese speakers, the favela was also clearly not a scene from the movie Cidade de Deus. The presence of youth hostels, clubs, AirBnBs, a sushi restaurant, the rumour that David Beckham has a house there, and some inevitable gentrification, made us wonder if this was actually one of the infamous ‘favelas’ we had heard about too often from Western media- lawless cities-within-cities- or just a neigbourhood on a steep hillside. Of course, our brief encounter poses no substantial investigation into the veracity of the media’s claim, but we entered and exited without any cause for alarm, and we enjoyed a good half day hike.
After we made it back to sea level, we tried to make it to another famous hill in Rio: Sugarloaf Mountain. Unfortunately, after waiting for 1.5 hours for a bus that never arrived (the nearby tourist information had guaranteed us would come soon and bring us there directly), we realized we would not make it there before dark and called it a day. We made it back to our lovely island where we found a bar, explored every street on it and had a cold beer by the water. After another late evening with Claudio and another of his great vegetarian meals, we started mentally preparing for the 28 hour bus trip to Salvador we would take the next morning.
Our short visit to Rio was a mere sample of the gargantuan offerings of the city- due to money and time constraints, we had to forego visiting Christ the Redeemer, climbing Sugarloaf mountain, spending a day soaking up sun on Copacabana beach, going to the Botanical Gardens, and visiting the many neighbourhoods. However, we are grateful for the time we had there, because we did get to spend a large proportion of it with Claudio and Laurent’s classmate’s family, who showed us the highlights of the city. We hope to be back sometime in the future!