So I’m writing this in the early morning sat on the terrace of the gorgeous Sant Matre Hostel up in the hills of Santa Teresa overlooking, what must be the most beautiful city in the world, Rio. Birds of all colours and sizes; tiny emerald humming birds, thumb sized golden canaries, and multi-coloured parrots, are singing to one another, and I can hear the cheeky family of monkeys (marmosets that feature in the film ‘Rio’), who live in the palm, mango, banana, and avacodo trees getting ready to steal breakfast from the tables when everyone else gets up. I got up early because I wanted to do Rio justice in my blog, and write it when it still surrounds me.
As news of the Zika virus broke in 2015 we’d curtailed our planned Brazil and northern South America trip, swapping it for Canada and the USA. However, we needed to keep Rio because it was Fred’s ‘deal breaker’, this is a boy who supports Brazil rather than England at football, wearing his Neymar number 10 shirt with pride. As we travelled through the USA, catching the Olympic coverage in the press and on TV, we started to get a little nervous. Our nasty LA motel experience, quickly followed by the Lochte gunpoint robbery in Rio, with the associated alarmist reporting, only served to heighten this anxiety. We, and the press, couldn’t be more wrong. And neither, as it turns out, could Lochte. This is a city of extreme beauty, vibrant diverse culture, gentle and welcoming people, and a natural exuberance for living a joyful life.
(For those of you who don’t know Ryan Lochte the US Olympic swimmer went out, got hammered, picked up some young girls, vandalised a gas station including urinating on it, then because his Mum and girlfriend wanted to know why he didn’t come home he made up a story that he and his mates were held up at gunpoint. His mum then reported this in a Fox News interview and the whole thing blew up. Lochte couldn’t get out of his lie and compounded it, getting all his team mates to join in the lie, which then grew. Cue hysterical reporting about how dangerous Rio was, all based on a grown up man not being able to tell his Mummy the truth. Pleased to say his sponsors have dropped him and he’s subject to a criminal prosecution.)
Having procrastinated about where to stay in Rio, Dean found the Santa Teresa district. It sits above Rio, the magnificent houses were built in the 1700s by rich Portuguese merchants, set into the tree filled hillside, giving rise to stunning views of the beaches, mountains, and working city below. As the fashionable Copacabana and Ipanema districts developed in the 1900s, the middle classes moved out of the stucco, Grecian columned, colourful houses, into modern white tower blocks. Crime followed and the buildings fell into disrepair. In the last 10 years the district has seen a resurgence. Artists, musicians, and artisan crafters have moved into the cheap accommodation, and tiny bars and terraced restaurants started to open again. The old tram line that runs on the old cobbled streets, which have gradients that defeats cars when there is rain, reopened using the original trolley cars. Slowly, a few hostels and hotels appeared. A great Trip Advisor rating pointed us to this hostel, just in budget for a private family room. It came with the bonus of a pool, and a covered veranda with ping pong table and snooker table.
So to Rio. We arrived shattered, after an overnight 9 hour flight from Miami, at 8am. After unpacking for our 5 night stay, we decided that we needed to stretch our legs and get some fresh air. We’d met Janet from New Zealand at breakfast, who had been here for the Olympics, and recommended a walk down to the city. We set off through the tiny winding cobbled streets, grateful that we were going downhill and wondering how on earth we would manage the steep walk back up. Murals, and less creative graffiti tags (the task is clearly to get them as high up the building as seems impossible) covered the neo classical buildings and it reminded me of Havanna. We passed the first of the artist studios, restaurants and cafes, and it was clear that we had found the ‘real’ Rio. We decided to keep on going and soon we were in the heart of ‘Gloria’ with not a tourist in sight. Because we were only really familiar with the images of affluent Copacabana and Ipanema and the run down Flavela’s, it was refreshing to see this part of Rio, the old heart of the city. It’s a surprisingly impoverished economy, with incomes running at a subsistence level. Small shops sit happily with street sellers trying to make a living by recycling stuff that wouldn’t be accepted on a village fete stall. Mothers with babies sit on the street selling a bag of onions, avocados, tomatoes and other produce that they’ve grown or collected. There was a scattering of homeless people sleeping on the pavement, police stood by but not moving them on. Interestingly they were not begging, and locals dropped food and money for them without being asked. We parted with some apples that we had just bought. After a good explore we headed back up the hill and stopped midway for lunch. A set menu of Northern Brazilian food; steak, rice, blackeyed beans, cous cous like maize and salad, revived us and we finished our walk home. Although only 4pm we fell into bed and had an almighty sleep.
The next day was hot, but not a crystal clear sky, so we decided we’d save our trip to Christ the Redeemer and do some other sightseeing instead. We set off on foot for ‘The Ruined House’ and local art museums. The ‘Ruined House’ was a grand residence owned by a collector of art who ran one of the most glamourous ‘salons’ from his home. At some stage it fell into disrepair and instead of renovating it, the city brought in an architect to shore up the foundations and put in glass walkways so you can walk up, and through, the shell that remains. Three photo shoots were going on whilst we were there, which added to our fun. On our way back from our sightseeing we bumped into a man who owned 4 VWs that were sat on his drive. He enthusiastically spoke to us in Portuguese but again language got in the way of a fuller exchange. We all nodded enthusiastically, signalling our agreement that VWs were the best!
On our walk home we opted for a very late lunch / early dinner at a local seafood restaurant. A couple of Cipriani’s warmed us up for a stunning meal. The prices were surprisingly high, so we found a cheap selection on the menu. They still didn’t disappoint. Dean had the seafood soup and it was incredible. It was a bowl full of prawns, mussels, white and red fish, in a lovely bouillon beautifully flavoured. To top it off an enormous Langoustine crowned it.
The hotel had a lovely man, Fernando, who would drive you around even more cheaply than the very cheap city taxis. Fernando spoke not a word of English, but he was a delightful and kind man, sharing his sweets and patting Fred every time he saw him. Fernando took us to see Christ the Redeemer on our third day, this time a beautiful clear day. Our drive was 20 minutes of more insane driving around us, and again we were grateful we didn’t need to drive through Rio. We had an hour to kill before we could board the old train up the mountain so we had a look around the museum of ‘naïve art’. On the second floor a vast mural wound its way along the ceiling. It told the story of Brazil from its discovery by the Portuguese, and alongside the mural a comprehensive history of Brazil was provided, covering its economic foundations, move from monarchy to republic, up to the present day. History lesson over we made our way to the train and up the mountain. We took the lift from the train to the base of the statue and it really is stunning. The statue is just vast, and it has been positioned to give the best 360 degree view of Rio. We took a heap of pictures and then went into the small chapel built in the base. The pious lay prostrate before the alter and we, along with others, sat in the chairs provided to have a quiet moment.
A city taxi took us back into Santa Teresa, more insane driving, where we ate in one of the small restaurants at dirt cheap prices. More Cipriani’s and conversation with a couple of professors from the university made for a fun afternoon, and a better understanding of modern day Brazil. Fred found some kids outside with a flea ridden golden Labrador cross puppy, cue lots of cuddles and one happy boy. We walked off the cocktails, then a game of pool and a session on the ping pong table finished our day.
Of course you can’t come to Rio and not do the beaches, so the next morning Fernando drove us to Ipanema and we settled into some chairs to people watch. Of course on our way we passed a few crumpled cars, and Fernando drove with aplomb tutting at the poor driving. Despite being mid-week the beach was full to bursting of locals. Football, volleyball, beach tennis, surfing all went on around us. The football skills on the beach were astounding. Groups of men and girls volleying a football between them in a circle, a cliché but true, they can play football. A continuous flow of beach sellers marketed their wares; bikinis, food, cocktails, portable bbqs to cook for you at your feet, toys, ice creams, the list was endless. They were respectful and helpful, and trade was good for them. Cheap prices mean that Rio locals don’t bring anything to the beach except their towels, buying food and drink throughout the day from these hard working people. Fred and I played in the surf, but the waves were powerful so we kept close to the shore. Later our caution was proven to be correct. We had just gone back into the water when we saw someone become agitated, his friend had got into difficulty and was 2 sets of waves back. The lifeguards had disappeared, we joined him in running back up the beach for help. Someone spotted the lifeguards walking slowly in our direction and we all jumped up and down screaming for them to come. They took an endless time to realise that they were being called, but finally broke into a sprint. At the water’s edge they put on their flippers and dove into the surf. The swimmer had disappeared beneath the waves. Eventually we saw that a surfer had paddled over to him, pulled him out of the water and onto his board. The lifeguards brought him back in and laid him onto the sand. Thankfully he was ok. The Brazilian lady who had helped us get the lifeguards hugged me. Dean and I had only just been talking about the terrible Camber Sands drowning of 5 young men the day before in England, it was easy to see how quickly these thing happen. I was rather shaken by the whole thing, but it was a good life lesson for Fred. We distracted ourselves with bat and ball, and sandcastle building; much to Fred’s amusement a small Brazilian girl came and joined him to help out. Not a word was spoken but they played alongside one another, very sweet.
That night we treated ourselves to dinner and dancing at ‘Rio Scenario’, a hip nightspot for Brazilians. They happily let Fred in, he was the only child there, and we sat down to a wonderful meal. A succession of bands played Samba with the floor filling each time, showing us how it’s done. My favourite was the groovy 80-year-old who circled the tables, catching a dance with lots of young beautiful women. Fred got Dean and I up for a turn, we did our best to not look like flat footed Brits. I then had the extra treat of Fred taking a turn with me. I don’t think the Repper’s did too badly!
Our final day saw us explore the ‘Museum of the Future’ which sat on the waterfront. A stunning sculptural building, it contained a multimedia collection reflecting our ecological and cultural history, and forecasting the future. More knowledgeable about how to preserve our scarce resources, Fred is now rationing toilet paper and how long we can stand in the shower…….
A walk along the sea front took us past the main Naval installation and training ground. We passed submarines and naval vessels, all very impressive up close. Sailors, dressed in Popeye bell bottoms, bib shirts and white hats that made us chuckle, walked amongst us. With a few more sights to see we grabbed a cab to the modern cone shaped Cathedral. Inside we saw how the four stained glass sides come together to form a cross, which is the roof, and in turn the glass cross in the roof creates a cross on the floor at the heart of the Cathedral. A walk to the antiques shops in Lapa took us past the arched viaduct and Carnival Stadium, more sights from the film ‘Rio’ we could tick off. With lots of sightseeing under our belt we were ready for the now obligatory Cipriani’s, and a bite of food. At the heart of Lapa is an interchange of 5 streets, each with bars that mark the corner. We picked one of these that had been beautifully restored, with the upper floor removed giving double height to the ceiling. Yet more great food, drinks and service kept our warm glow about Rio going.
It was with a sad heart that I woke on the day we were leaving, the day I started this blog entry. So with an early start I got up to make the most of the beautiful weather, stunning vista from the terrace, and company of the monkeys, birds et al. We all had a lovely morning relaxing before our midday check out. Fernando drove us to the airport. As he did so we hit traffic a few miles out from the hostel and queued with the cars, as motorcyclists weaved in and out. Eventually we came up alongside the cause of the delay, the horrendous sight of a motorcyclist dead on the road. I just managed to turn Fred away before he saw it, but I’ve been left haunted by the broken contorted body of a chubby middle aged man.
I loved Rio, it’s a beautiful place with wonderfully warm, kind, outgoing, but gentle people. It may be dangerous if you choose to find danger, but not at all if you have an ounce of sense. The biggest risk probably comes on the road or with the sea, but then that’s true of any city or seaside resort in England. Ignore The Daily Mail and Fox News, I doubt their reporters have ever experienced the place; too much bigotry and fearfulness. Finally shame on Lochte. I hope that people will forget his made up story, I suspect they won’t…. So come to Rio and tell others to. I’ll be coming back; I suspect quite a lot!
For me this trip is all about having a great adventure with my family. Its taken years for us to finally stop talking about it and do it - simply because it both excites and frightens the life out me! So I'm stepping out of corporate life, where I singularly failed to achieve a work/life balance....to experience different cultures and spend time with those I love xx