Surf, Samba and Shantytowns of Rio de Janeiro

Ipanema BeachSun, sand, sea, “fio dentals” (dental floss, the local lingo for scanty bikinis)! From our first taxi-window glimpses as we roll along the streets siding Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, Rio de Janeiro shouts “resort city”!

Ipanema Beach UmbrellasAfter stowing our luggage in our hotel room we hastily don our “fuller” bathing suits, and walk the length of Ipanema with its profusion of umbrellas and bronzing bodies. Further back from the water volleyball players show off their finesse (or not), and beach shacks spill over with folks imbibing or snacking. We feel the vibes of this “cidade maravilhosa” (marvelous city in Portuguese) as it is known to “cariocas”, the people who live in Rio.

The next day we check out Copacabana under Sol’s brilliant rays, then it is back to Ipanema, but this time our mission is to stake out a spot for our rented umbrella and loungers…and to swelter in the glorious day as inert as granules of sand….ahhh, life is good!

Our Rio de Janeiro Photo Gallery
RioI can imagine the euphoria of Portuguese explorers who first sailed into beautiful Guanabara Bay in January of 1502, and thinking it was a river named it “River of January”, which stuck. Early history was one of strife between the French who established a colony on an island in the bay, only to be expelled by the Portuguese after they set up a fortified town on the mainland.

It became an important settlement due to sugar plantations and slave trade, and later was a main gold rush fever port. In 1763 Rio de Janeiro replaced Salvador as the colonial capital. Then during the coffee boom, beginning in 1900, it became the gateway for the flood of European immigrants arriving to work the coffee plantations. News was now out on Rio’s dazzling beaches, and during the 1920s and 1930s “Golden Age”, it became an exotic destination for international travellers. Albeit in 1960 the city of Brasilia was named the country’s capital, Rio remains the cultural and tourist capital.

A tour seems the most hassle-free and non-exertive way to visit the iconic sites of the city with Juliana, our guide and Gian, our driver.

Christ the RedeemerOkay, a wee bit of exertion is required to make ones way from the bus to the escalators that rise to the top of Corcovado (Hunchback) Mountain where Christ the Redeemer (Cristo Redentor) gazes out over Rio.

Juliana doles out some facts, “Built between 1922 and 1931, this art deco creation of concrete and soapstone stands 30m (98ft) tall, not including the 8m (26ft) base; arms stretching out 28m (92ft) and weighing in at 635 metric tons.”

The limited space in front and around this gigantic statue is packed with people posing, cameras clicking; some “selfie” aficionado’s foolishly daring to stand on a ledge. Looking upward, the din around me dulls with the peaceful aura of this symbol of Christianity against the heavenly blue sky.

SugarloafWe next make our way to Sugarloaf Mountain rising 396m (1,299ft) on a peninsula that sticks out into the Atlantic Ocean. The name Sugarloaf was coined in the 16th century for its shape resembling the blocks of sugar placed in conical molds of clay to be transported by ship to trade destinations.

View from SugarloafThe queues at the cable car are long, but eventually we file into a car that ascends part way, then a second car brings us to the summit. The 360-degree view from the top is spectacular! The wide top deck area is equipped with seating and places to purchase (very expensive) snacks and drinks.

Metropolitan Cathedral of St SebastianThe Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Sebastian (the city’s patron saint), was completed in 1976. Juliana says its pyramid-shape honours the Mayan ancestry of Brazil’s indigenous tribes.

Inside the Cathedral“Now this is a cathedral!” I spurt out too loudly, not expecting the resounding echo inside. My eyes take in the scope of stained glass windows soaring 64m (210ft) from floor to ceiling, and the seating capacity for 5,000, and standing room for 20,000!

Selaron StepsThe 250 Selaron Steps (Escadaria Selaron) are dazzling and dizzying with their adornment of 2,000 tiles collected from 60 countries around the world. In 1990 Chilean-born artist Jorge Selaron began renovating the dilapidated steps in front of his house. Mocking neighbours only served to turn his whim into a full-blown obsession. He sold his paintings and accepted donations to fund his work of completely covering the steps and sidewalls with tiles, ceramics and mirrors. Some tiles he scavenged from construction sites, some he purchased, others were donated by visitors as his work reached international acclaim. Sadly, on January 10, 2013, Selaron was mysteriously found dead with burn marks on his body on the very steps that fueled his passion.

Maracana StadiumIt’s onward to see some sites that are synonymous with Brazilian culture. The Maracana Stadium opened in 1950 to host the FIFA World Cup, in which, “Brazil beat Uruguay 2 to 1 in the deciding game,” Juliana boasts. In 2010 renos began in preparation for the 2014 World Cup. It next will serve as a venue for the August 2016 Olympics.

SambodromoSamba, Samba, Samba….our next stop is the “Sambodromo” (Sambadrome). The Samba beat of African-rooted music and dance style originating in Brazil reaches its zenith in this venue annually in competitions between samba schools. This takes place in conjunction with “Rio Carnaval”, oft called “the most famous party in the world” drawing national and international folks for riotous revelry in samba clubs, street parties and carnival balls.

The Sambodromo, built in 1984, is a 13meter-wide and 700meter-long (roughly ½ mile) parade route where super-elaborate floats and costumed dancers strut their stuff under the critical eyes of judges and enjoyed by spectators in the 90,000-capacity grandstands. “See the shape of the arches behind the Sombodromo?” says Juliana, “they represent the buttocks of the dancers, whose skimpy costumes leave little to the imagination.”

Carnaval CostumesBeing that Carnaval is only weeks away, Samba dancers in costume are out in full force promoting it – such as these cheeky-beauties at the Sunday Hippie Market.

Sunday Hippie MarketAnd in my market rating, I give this one an easy 8 out of 10, for size and its excellence in well-made crafts, variety and displays.

H Stern GemsBefore leaving home a geologist friend proclaimed, “You’ll never see a rock collection like in Rio”, and we not only find such a display of raw precious and semi-precious gems, but also see craftsmen cutting, polishing, and fashioning them into jewelry at H. Stern headquarters on Ipanema Street.

Wending our way through a Favela
FavelaThe cliff faces all around the city are jammed with favelas (shantytowns). A tour to one of the largest, Rio Rocinha, was a glimpse into the world of the “103,000 residents that live here”, according to Fernandi, our guide, whose passion for their plight is apparent.

Before we begin, he shares this advice, “You should know the favelas are where drug traffickers and organized crime gangs called “militias” rule and if by chance you see someone carrying a gun – please DO NOT attempt to take a photo.”

Favela 2For over an hour we walk the maze of narrow pathways of dwellings, now mostly concrete, with stairs branching off to higher and higher levels…I can’t even begin to imagine the long treacherous walk to and from work for the inhabitants; many employed in the big hotels, restaurants, or construction. Some residents greet us as we walk by, kids play in doorways, skeletal cats and dogs make quiet fleeting appearances.

“The favelas do not have proper infrastructure; the residents rig up their own water and sewage and electricity.” We can vouch for the latter as we walk under wires hanging overhead like a hearty portion of “al dente” cooked spaghetti. Around some corners are piles of refuse, but not bad considering they are not on the city grid for garbage disposal.

Young Samba DancerMid-way we stop for tin-can drummers pounding out a catchy beat. Within seconds a boy aged 6 or 7 keeps up with lightening leg movement, and is joined by an even younger girl! Donations are in order.

Further along some ladies have a table stocked with handmade jewelry and trinkets for sale. I am quick to purchase four bracelets of twisted electrical cable – a unique gift with a story for our grandchildren.

A cooling drink or home-made cake or cookie is available from a tiny store. An icy concoction made from acai juice hits the spot.

We are only too happy to stop on a platform jutting out from the cliff for a view of favelas on surrounding hills (and a much needed breather). Fernandi takes this time to tell us the first favelas were built by soldiers who had nowhere to go. “They were promised lots of land after their return from fighting the civil war (War of Canudos, 1896-97), but this promise was broken by the corrupt government.” An elderly gent on our tour, who spent most of his life in Rio, pipes up, “And government corruption is why people since then and still today live in these conditions in one of the richest countries in the world for oil, gems, and resources.”

“Things are somewhat improved here,” Fernandi says, “they now have a small pharmacy, and a charity run kindergarten, and NGO’s run some recreation programs to expose the kids to sports and alternative interests, rather than the slippery slope of the drug trade. The hardships of eking out an existence in the favelas are forever burned in our memories and we leave with heartfelt good wishes and great respect for those who must continually struggle to provide for their families.

Its back to lazing around Ipanema for a few days before returning to Sao Paulo, and our marathon flight back home to Canada. Brazil was a grand experience – for its natural beauty, great sites to explore, stunning beaches, friendly people with a zest for life…and Rick’s zeal for fio dentals.

Suggested Accommodation:
The Hotel Vermont (This great value and very pleasant hotel is a mere two blocks from Ipanema Beach. All manner of tours can be booked at the reception desk.)
Rua Visconde de Piraja, 254 – Ipanema


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