Cariocas are a tough bunch.
The natives of Rio de Janeiro have uber strong personalities and even stronger accents. They move around their city with a gentle power that seems to be the engine that keeps Rio churning. They are a proud people who evidently hold their culture and traditions close to their hearts, and if you’re a tourist you either jump on an already quickly moving train or get toppled over.
Either your Portugese is spot on, you’re using Google translate to tell the taxi driver that you want to go to the Hippie Market, or using something akin to sign language to tell the waiter you want more ice; but when you’re in Rio, Cariocas speak their language with little try of learning yours.
I was ready to say, “I’m literally done with the people of Rio,” just three days into my trip. I was so convinced that they were the most mean, most unaccommodating and unwelcoming people on the planet.
I mean, your city had nearly seven years to prepare for the biggest sporting event in the world and how is it that you have not learned one English word? How is it that you don’t know where the Olympic stadiums are? How is it that like the athletes, you didn’t train hard to become better?
I was ready to write Rio off!
But then I soon realised that like Rio, the people who occupy it are rough around the edges, but pillowy soft on the inside. Cariocas know what the world says about them and their city, but it seems like they could care less. They’re not on a mission to prove or disprove the headlines. They just are who they are.
Rio de Janeiro, which means River of January, has about 6.5 million people living in the mountainous city. With some of the world’s most famous and beautiful beaches lying at its feet and one of the seven wonders of the world towering over it in judgment, they live in their own paradise.
But like everything and everywhere else in the world, there’s good and bad. Thankfully, I didn’t experience any of the pickpocketing, robbery or blatant assault I was warned of. Instead, I was introduced to a more gentle version of the place I’d read and heard about.
Rio turned out to be one of the most adventurous, culture shocking, frustrating (at times), joyous, amazing, exhausting but heartwarming travel experiences.
Despite the headaches, crazy schedules, wild taxi drivers and warped sense of direction, I found that…Rio is kind of like me; super sweet, amazing, welcoming and loving…once you peel back the layers.
When we first got there, we stayed at a boutique hotel in Lapa; the booming, thriving and upbeat part of the city where bars, clubs, restaurants and nightlife left Rio trembling with activity. Lapa has a homey feeling. Small street corners, graffiti splashed across the walls, I could see inside homes and apartment complexes, parks and schools. I fell in love with Lapa. I could live in Lapa! This is my kind of place! So much food and fun, hype and hippiness, nightlife and naughtiness, I love it! For the party girl in me, Lapa gave me life! The area is constantly booming with activity and a party is always happening. One of the best nights we had in Lapa was an impromptu bar crawl we set out on! We hopped from bar to restaurant that night and somehow ended up in the road! The streets swelled with partygoers who had to take up their own lane in the already tiny road as the sidewalks became too much to bear. By day though, Lapa transformed into a culture rich center, still the life of the party where girlfriends met up at Ernesto’s for brunch and coworkers got happy hour started early.
Four days into the trip, I started getting antsy. Antsy because it took us the entire four days to get acclimated to being in a new city, getting our bearings together, catching up with the Olympic schedule (we were there to work after all) and trying to sneak in time to be tourists and relax.
The first free day we had I made it my business to visit Escadaria Selaron! The most beautiful staircase in the world! Taking colorful tiles, ceramics and mirrors from all over the world, the creator of this masterpiece, Chilean-born artist Jorge Selarón, said it was his tribute to the Brazilian people and a way to repair the shoddy staircase in front of his house. This place buzzed with tourists who stood and watched a Crayola box come to life! That’s literally how these steps made me feel. So colorful, so fun, so beautiful, a true work of art! I walked up every single step and stopped for the most refreshing and cooling Acai smoothie on the way down!
Corcovado (Christ the Redeemer)
It sits so high above the city, staring down, its arms wide, almost welcoming you to hike up the mountain and meet him. It’s perhaps one of Brazil’s most identifying features; the Christ the Redeemer statue is such a sight to behold. We booked a tour for another one of our free days and had the best time ever. We were real tourists this day and hopped the huge tour bus where other eager visitors greeted us, all eyes wide to see the city. We made several stops to some of Brazil’s other landmarks before we got to Cristo Redentor. We took the train up the mountain passing breathtaking views of the city as we chugged along. Once we got to the top it was a fight to get a photo. But once up there, the views of the city are astounding, and that monument…there are no words to describe!
There were reports of some U.S. Olympic swimmers being robbed at gunpoint and early one morning I got a call at my hotel room from a frantic member of our team. They told me to pack my stuff right away and meet the other team members down in the lobby because there had been a robbery nearby and they wanted us to stay somewhere safer. Well…we all know how that story turned out! Oh, Lochte! Nonetheless, we swapped hotels and ended up at the Windsor Excelsior right on Copacabana Beach! And I didn’t mind! The stretch of beach was littered with people every single day and I could see why! Being from The Bahamas though, I never felt the urge to hop in, but it sure was pretty to look at. I had an ocean view room on the 12th floor and everyday the Copacabana Beach and I awoke and fell asleep to the sound of its waves.
For some reason, despite all the bad things I’d heard about the favelas, I was never scared to go there; in fact I was intrigued! I booked an afternoon tour of the Favela Da Rocinha, one of Rio’s largest “ghettos.” Our tour guide Daniel told us never to let someone from the favela hear you calling it a ghetto, though. “It’s their homes, their communities, they take great pride in where they live. To them it’s not a ghetto, it’s not unorganized and none of that bad stuff you hear about it.” But to the naked eye the favela seems to be all these things. Imagine thousands of homes literally stacked on top of each other with little or no where to walk, poor sanitation weighs down the sprawl of land while residents of the favela carry on business as usual. The homes are shoddy with poorly built in utilities and crime runs rampant. During the nearly hour long tour, we were warned to hide all valuables as we approached a specific corner because, “You don’t want to mess with the guys through here,” Daniel said. “Don’t let them see anything you have, they’ll want it and they’ll take it.” I’d ask Daniel if the people who lived in the favelas ever left to head into the bigger city and he told me that a large percentage of them don’t. And that’s because everything is in the favelas…like EVERYTHING! There are churches, schools, hair salons, clothing stores, grocery stores, restaurants, banks, and every other thing you could think would be in an average community! The favelas are thriving communities of people who use what they have to make life work! Don’t visit without a tour guide!
Santa Teresa, The Hippie Market
Perhaps my favorite part of any trip is when I go hunting for locally made items in the markets! And on this trip I visited three sprawling local squares. There was a market set up just down the street from our hotel where the most beautiful clothing items and trinkets were being sold. I admit, that I am the worst souvenir shopper and could never decide what to get and who to get it for. But this market made it super easy to pick up gifts for everyone since they had a variety of figurines, bags, personalised items and gifts. And then there’s Santa Teresa, so beautiful! With gorgeous graffiti plastered on just about every wall, cute boutique shops, restaurants and bars galore, I was in heaven! This was my kind of market shopping! We bought paintings, household items, (more) clothes, shoes and the best octopus I’ve eaten in my life! We visited the Hippie Market on Ipanema, which is a crowd fave and tourist attraction…but the weather was to bad that day! The winds, rain and near tornadic activity didn’t lend to us touring the market as I wanted. We picked up a few things here and there but we literally got blown away! Sadly, they only set up shop on Sundays so that was our one shot! Maybe next time!
The more I moved around Rio, the more I realised that this city is one tough cookie! Like the person who makes you earn your place in their life, you have to work to belong and befriend; you can’t just show up and think the work is done. But once you’ve done the work and proven your loyalty, you become the best of friends! That’s only because when she does befriend you, you have absolutely nothing to worry about! This is Rio…and boy do I identify with her! 🙂