OYOP: Last stop in South America – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
After spending a week in Brazil’s small beach towns, we finally mustered up the will to leave the stunning beaches to return to the big city, Rio de Janeiro, where we would spend a final 4 days in South America. This time, we were more prepared. We had cash, learned a few key words in Portuguese, and had a hostel booked for 4 nights, two beds in a 6-bed dorm room in the neighborhood of Ipanema. We didn’t intend to spend all of our time in Rio in dorm rooms, but it turns out that Rio is an expensive city, and US$13 per bed was a lot more appealing than US$60 per night in a private room.
The Ipanema beach is one of the most well-known beaches in Brazil, behind Copacabana of course. The Ipanema neighborhood is charming and there are a lot of nearby cafes and restaurants. It was a great home base for exploring the city. We spent the first afternoon in Rio at the Ipanema beach. At first I wasn’t that impressed having come from Buzios and Arraial do Cabo, but I quickly realized the allure of the long stretch of beach with a big city background, a mountain on one side, and beautiful islands out in the harbor. The beach was packed with families, partygoers, and groups of soccer circles. At sunset, the sky turned from bright blue to soft hues of lavenders, and it was easy to forget the crowded city behind us.
The next day, we got an early start to hike Corcovado, the mountain topped with the Christ the Redeemer statue overlooking the entire city. It would be our second of the New 7 Wonders of the World we would visit on this trip. The first was Machu Picchu. The trail started in the Parque Lage, a park in the magnificent Tijuca rainforest that rests in the middle of the city of Rio de Janiero. It is the largest forest in an urban area in the world, and it was twice as humid as any I’d previously experienced. We were drenched in sweat immediately, and we’d barely started walking. The beginning of the trail was pleasant. It was somewhat flat, and we saw brown capuchin monkeys in the trees. Then, the upward ascent began, and it didn’t stop. Much of the time, it was necessary to use our hands as much as our legs, and to clasp onto trees and rocks on the way up. At one point, there was just a series of nearly vertical boulders with chains attached to them to be used to pull yourself up. It was tough.
We’d just passed a particularly difficult section of the trail, when I paused for a break and saw a rustle in the trees. I watched for a few more moments, when, to my excitement, a tiny Common Marmoset monkey appeared on a nearby branch. These fascinating monkeys have long tails, are smaller than squirrels, and the pygmy version is the smallest monkey in the world. We were able to watch it for a few minutes as it scurried through the trees. The sighting gave me a rush of adrenaline, and it alone seemed worth the difficult climb to the top.
After a grueling two hours, we reached the top, an entrance gate crowded with people. We’d only seen about 10 other hikers, but hundreds of people were taking a bus or train to the top. The entrance fee was $24 Reals (about US $7) per person, to go up the remaining few dozen steps to the statue. We’d climbed 750 meters, and it was interesting to see how much more massive the statue was up close and rewarding to see the city look so tiny below. The views, however, were not completely clear, so we had to wait for the fog to clear and enjoy the view of whichever section of the city was revealed. The entrance ticket didn’t include a bus back down, nor would the attendant let us wait in the bus line because those tickets had to be bought ahead of time. It was already mid-afternoon, so we decided to take the train down for $22 Reals per person. As the train passed outside of the forest, I was again so thankful we’d hiked up. It was, for us, the best part of the trip to Corcovado.
On Saturday, we took a guided tour through a favela, Rocinha. The favelas are the slums of the city, and though we were conflicted about this type of tourism, we ultimately decided to go on the tour. We learned that people originally settled in the areas who did not own the land, but built shacks, then sold their rooftop space to other families who built up. This continued until buildings were 4 to 6 stories high. The favelas are on the ground level and up into hillsides, with no alignment or order, and with minimal space in between so that most streets are just alleyways in places so narrow that people walk through them single file. The tour was interesting, eye-opening, and at times, uncomfortable.
Tangled cable wires hang low in the streets, and sewer water drips from building sides and runs through the alleyways. Chickens and rats live on trash piles the size of small hills. Most people now have water and electricity, and some of the areas of the favelas are now considered middle-class families with tv satellites and phones. Many people in the favelas moved to the city from smaller areas of Brazil in search for a better life for their families. We met artists, musicians, and bakers. But we also passed by men with guns ready in hand or in their laps. It is a complicated place, and it was a real part of the city today, of which we only saw and learned a fraction about.
We spent the rest of the day at the famed Copacabana beach, surrounded by beautiful beach and people sipping capirinhas or playing soccer in the sand.
We spent our last full day in South America exploring more of the city of Rio de Janeiro. We walked throughout the neighborhood of Santa Teresa. It was Easter Sunday, so the popular tram, or streetcar, that runs over an old aqueduct to the Santa Teresa neighborhood was closed, but we were able to easily take the bus to the area. The neighborhood is full of old European charm and colorful buildings. We walked to the Parque das Ruinas, a park with an old abandoned mansion turned into an open air mirador with the original brick walls and spiral staircase still in tact. The views from the park of the entire Rio de Janiero harbor were exceptional, especially on this very clear (and very hot) day with no clouds in the sky. The harbor is listed on the 7 Natural Wonders of the World, and once I could see all of it, I fully appreciated it in all its beauty. The islands and cliffs in the harbor, the skyscrapers, the neighborhoods, the forest, and the beaches all blended together into one harmonious view. We stayed at the park for hours taking in the city. The city is beautiful. It is diverse in its nature, it’s people, it’s culture. It is fun and interesting and messy and complicated, all in one. I didn’t know when we arrived in Rio that I would feel such an affection for it after only a few days.
We walked from the park to the Lapa steps, an outdoor stairway covered in colorful tiles from around the city and donated from across the world.
Once we’d soaked in all of this fun street art, we took the metro and bus to meet Lucas, our friend who lives in Rio that we met in Bolivia, for drinks and dinner at sunset at the Urca Bar overlooking the harbor. The harbor was a popular place for nightlife, with people lined up for a seat on the concrete wall and a clear view for sunset. It was the perfect way to end our South American trip.
It is difficult to grasp that we will be on a plane in less than 24 hours, to leave South America for the rest of our trip and not know in life when we might return. I have learned a little about each of the places we have visited and mostly learned that there is so much more to each of the cities, the cultures, the people, and the history in South America than I could have ever grasped in 4 months’ time. As we leave South America behind, I think about what we have experienced here. I have been captivated by the world’s natural beauty. I have been challenged physically as we embarked on arduous hikes and emotionally as we encountered unfamiliar or uncomfortable situations. Mostly, I have been positively overwhelmed that despite all of our differences in language and culture, the locals and travelers alike who we met along the way shared with us their generosity, humor, comfort, knowledge, and kindness. I will take a little piece of each person and experience here with me onto the next leg of this journey as we continue on to visit another new and foreign part of the world over the next 8 months. Adios, South America. Chau, chau!