Rio De Janeiro

May 1, 2012 | 5 minute read | By Kevin Read

I had a plan to develop a routine in Rio, with 6 nights to gradually work my way around the city and recover from the busy schedule at the beginning of this trip. Every day I would get up, run along the beach, drink coconut water on the sand then go to explore and take pictures, followed by hopping between restaurants and bars. Rio De Janeiro is where the wealthy of Brazil come to party, shop, lie on the beach and show off.

I decided to do some of the same.

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Rio De Janeiro is an energetic, vibrant assault of choices and options and there are more than 6 million people crowded in this city built among the mountains lining the coast, with another 6 million in the surrounding area. Every flat piece of land is covered in tall buildings and streets full of entertainment; where the terrain is more steep, improvised favelas pile up and cling to the hillside. Rio is a place where there’s as much to do for a local as for a tourist, and I wanted to spend my days more Carioca (the demonym for residents of Rio) than Gringo.

riodejaneiro-7I wandered up and down the beachside neighbourhood of Ipanema, just South of its more famous (and more seedy) counterpart Copacabana. It’s hard to find a quiet area to relax here: the beach is always crowded and the city immediately behind it bustling with bars and restaurants. Somehow, sitting on the beach seems wrong here with both the crowds of people and endless other things to do. This is a place to be seen, and you are never far from clothes shops, gyms or health food vendors. Rio De Janeiro is one of the most popular places in the world for plastic surgery (for locals as well as Americans and Europeans who come here to save money on the procedure then recover in the sun) and the beaches and hang-outs of Ipenama and Copacabana are where you go to show off the results.

riodejaneiro-6The positive side of this is just how fit the city is. I visited a fruit market in one of the squares and found it mobbed with healthy-looking people picking through hundreds of stalls of fresh food (I looked something like a malnourished caveman at the time, it being the first day I’d slowed down to relax in about 2 months – some of the vendors just gave me fruit out of sympathy). There’s a large lagoon about 7 blocks from the beach behind Ipanema, and its 8 km circumference is not only paved as a running and cycling track, but dotted with work-out stations which look like a cross between a playground and an outdoor gym. These are always busy, not just with young show-offs, but people of all ages swinging, lifting and cycling before continuing their walks and runs along the lake shore. The lagoon gave me a rare opportunity to exercise, and each day I would jog around it, staring out at the water-skiers or the mountains beyond, topped with Christ the Redeemer.

On the beach front, vendors are lined up to sell coconuts, picked at the stage where they still look like melon-sized mangos. When you buy one, the vendors (none of which place much value on fingers), take the fruit in one hand and, with the other, raise a large cleaver above their heads which they smash hard into the coconut to make a cut. Two cuts on the bottom makes a flat surface for setting the fruit down, then three on the top creates a hole to the nut.  It’s finished with a straw to draw out the faintly fruity water inside.

Somehow, Cariocas don’t wear themselves out during the day with exercise, shopping and posing (and, for some of them at least, work), and at night the city is just as alive as during the day. In the neighbourhood of Lapa, a street party every Friday and Saturday night draws thousands of people to gather under a disused viaduct and the surrounding streets where the bars spread out with tables and chairs on the pavement outside and vendors of all kinds sell meat, beer and Caipirinha, Brazil’s national cocktail made from sugar cane rum, sugar and lime.

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riodejaneiro-2 Rio is also a paradise for photography, and it would take years to examine the city from every angle. The unpredictable weather (each day I was there the forecast was the same and at no point matched what actually happened) causes a massive variation in the light and a scene looks completely different from one moment to the next. The giant art deco sculpture of Christ the Redeemer looks across the city and out to sea from behind (although on the day I visited I got a depressing view of the inside of clouds for 2 hours), but Sugar Loaf Mountain (the famous rock that guards the entrance to the city) shows more clearly how unyielding the landscape is to city planners.

Rio De Janeiro isn’t representative of Brazil, but it’s hard to imagine a visit to the country without seeing it. The mountains jutting out in the middle of an otherwise normal set of city blocks and the golden beaches pushed right up against the luxury apartment buildings make Rio a unique mix of natural landscape and urban sprawl. Controlling the spread and growth of this city is almost impossible and, with the lawless favelas and increasing urban footprint, not being achieved. It’s huge, far larger than I was expecting, and complicated and colourful: everything I had imagined Rio De Janeiro to be, yet still surprising for really being there, a giant beachside city next to the jungle.

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Practicalities:

Since Rio is gigantic and split into quite distinct neighbourhoods, there’s no one good location to stay in and you’ll end up using the excellent public transport either way. I stayed in Ipanema, which is relaxed and safe, yet with a good set of options for eating, drinking and sleeping. Copacabana is more famous and popular but, as a result, you are more likely to fall into a tourist trap or end up in a less safe area.

Rio is also very expensive. A pasta dinner can cost up to 25USD, and finding cheap (and decent) options to eat was very tough.

Visiting Christ the Redeemer and SugarLoaf mountain are both ways to get a good view of the city but neither are particularly easy to get to. The metro system is a good way to get from one place to another, but to do either of these attractions i found it easier to use the buses (for both, the metro does not stop anywhere close enough to walk to them anyway). The botanical gardens in Ipanema were excellent and there are a few good museums, but allowing time to just walk around Rio is probably the best way to experience it.

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5 responses to “Rio De Janeiro”

  1. Mike A says:

    In order to match my Hollywood-based expectations, please engage in and thoroughly document at least one high speed car chase through a favela, please.

    • Kevin Read says:

      I may do this by walking gently around a safe neighbourhood while filming through a detached car door, then speed up the footage and bounce it around a bit to make it more exciting. When I do post my ‘Favela Chase’ entry, if you see any old ladies running past my speeding car, just know that that’s a common way for super-human drug dealers to disguise themselves.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    That last shot is just amazing. All of those buildings pressed right up against the mountains..

    • Kevin Read says:

      Thanks. Taps asked me about Christ the Redeemer, but I didn’t get any good pictures – it was too cloudy. It’s a huge statue as well – I don’t think I could have done it justice in a picture from close up.

      Thanks for reading

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