Rio de Janeiro: holiday paradise with poverty
(This article was published in the Independent Traveller, a weekly travel supplement in various newspapers across South Africa, on March 12 2016.)
Written by Yazeed Kamaldien
It would be too easy to show you a handful of picture-perfect postcards, replicating Touristville, and say this is it: Rio de Janeiro, hostess of the Olympic Games scheduled to run for most of August this year.
But that would not bear witness to the contradictions you would confront when traveling to Cidade Marvilhosa, its other Portuguese name, which in English means the Marvelous City.
That’s what Rio locals – known as cariocas – call their well-known Brazilian city with its 40km coastline, luscious vegetation and year-round holiday-making.
On the other hand, to dish up only sordid stories of Rio’s crime, drugs and sex trade would be too much of a cliché. Anybody who has watched the film City of God, itself a cliché to Brazilians, knows that poverty porn parade.
The traveler passing through Rio will come across, within the same day, a view of this city’s celebrated beaches like Copacabana and then, in full view from these beaches, are the large swathes of favelas, or impoverished townships, on hills.
The visitor can choose to venture no further than those well-known beaches and a few blocks up from it where hotels, hostels, fast food spots and restaurants clamour for tourist cash.
Or, like some travelers choose, they could stay in a favela. This is now trendy, to stay like a local in a township, ironically overlooking wealthier parts of the city.
Scores of foreigners who choose to live in cheaper homes near the beaches have flocked particularly to favela Vidigal which is a walking distance from Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon beaches.
Anyway, in between those Copacabana hotels is the homelessness and poverty that is an inevitable reality of Rio. So be prepared: Rio is not just a pretty postcard but a landscape of contemporary society’s complexities. It can feel ‘Third World’ even in its most expensive neighbourhoods.
During one of my visits to Rio, six months before the start of corrupt-laden Fifa’s Soccer World Cup 2014 tournament, I was working on a documentary film to show the voices for and against that sporting façade. This was long before Fifa president Sepp Blatter and others fell to corruption charges.
This trip included those aforementioned leisurely beaches, downtown Rio for interviews with the housing ministry, favelas where locals faced eviction and further afield to the city’s suburban outskirts where the poor were dumped out of sight.
I started my stay in the city with the Rio Free Walking Tour, which offers an overview from locals who know the layout and history of their streets.
Let’s interject some historical fact here, for the sake of history. And also just to say how this city got its name.
Portuguese explorers arriving at the mouth of Guanabara Bay on 1 January 1502 thought they had discovered the mouth of an enormous river which they promptly named the January River, or Rio de Janeiro.
After a walk through the city centre, it is easy to walk to Lapa neighbourhood where a noisy, vibrant nightlife endures all week.
Lapa’s instantly recognisable feature is its 18th century aqueduct, Arcos da Lapa, built to a Roman design. It comprises 42 wide arches that used to carry water from the Carioca River to the old city.
Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon beaches, with pleasantly embracing waters, are on the opposite side of the city. Rio’s public transport of buses and underground trains can take one anywhere in the city easily. Just steer clear of peak hour commuting.
But one should ideally be based on the side of town that offers the easiest access to the beaches. This is the highlight of a holiday in Rio, after all. What would an escape to this city be without some lazing in the sun?
Copacabana is best placed for a range of accommodation options for various budgets. If nothing suitable is available near the beaches, there are more accommodation options in parts of the city that are not too far away via public transport, particularly underground trains that run faster than buses.
These options include Botafogo neighbourhood where one finds Nelson Mandela Street when exiting the underground train station. It’s just a few train stops away from Copacabana.
A sweet moment when Mandela died on December 6 2013 was when someone left a bouquet of flowers on the street honouring his legacy.
Icons of another kind, remembered with two separate statues, are among Rio’s highlights. One is the obvious gigantic Christ the Redeemer with arms spread out like wings, watching over the city and its largely Catholic Christians.
The other is of deceased singer Michael Jackson in the Dona Marta favela.
Filmmaker Spike Lee shots Jackson’s music video for his hit song ‘They Don’t Care About Us’ in this favela.
Jackson’s statue, with fist raised, draws tourists from all over the world into the Dona Marta slum for a mandatory selfie.
Just as ubiquitous as Christ in Rio’s public imagery is the Sugarloaf Mountain which has a cable car running up it daily. Views of the city, especially in the evening, are worth making the trip just before sunset up the Sugarloaf.
Another fascinating architectural site is the Nova Catedral Metropolitana in downtown Rio. It is a 75m high church that can hold 20,000 people.
It was built between 1964 and 1976 and resembles a Mayan pyramid from Mexico. Inside, it has four stained glass windows measuring 20m by 60m.
And then there is Santa Teresa, a bit up the hill from Lapa, a Rio neighbourhood that trades its reputation as the city’s bohemian hangout.
Its houses are artsy, creative enclaves with views over the city. It’s a leafy suburb overlooking the messy slum beneath it and comprises early 19th century mansions with walled gardens.
During the Olympics, the Maracana stadium will host various sporting events. This stadium has been the setting for monumental soccer displays and it is where the final match of the Soccer World Cup was played in July 2014.
On non-match days, it is open for tours, which include visits to the changing rooms where the original soccer jerseys of the world’s most familiar soccer names are on display.
Apart from Rio, if time allows it easy to explore other parts of Rio de Janeiro state, to take a break from the city’s rhythm.
One place not to miss is Ilha Grande, an island with isolated beaches perfect for a breakaway.
Ilha Grande is made up of 193 square kilometres of mountainous jungle, historic ruins and tranquil beaches. It is found 150km southwest of Rio.
To turn your back on the Rio city madness, hop on a bus to small town Angra dos Reis where you then take a ferry for an hour towards blissful Ilha Grande.
There are a number of decent backpackers on the unspoilt island, so finding a place to stay is easy. The island is largely intentionally under-developed to maintain its natural charm. Don’t expect to see cars driving around.
A boat takes visitors around the island to reveal its isolated beaches: Lopes Mendes, Canto, Aventureiro and others.
One can also go on a tour with stops at the various beaches, snorkeling and a hearty seafood lunch. After a few days here, one leaves feeling thoroughly relaxed.
On the way back to Rio, it’s a good idea to stop at Paraty, a quiet town with a Portuguese colonial architectural landscape that has been identified as a World Heritage Site.
Paraty’s cobbled streets house a number of churches and quaint houses. It has been inhabited since 1650 and was a post for the 18th century trade in Brazilian gold.
Back in Rio city, officials have been pouring money into preparations for the Olympic Games.
During a visit to the city last year, to find out more about preparations for the Games, a walkabout revealed rejuvenation projects to part of the city’s waterfront.
Rio is dressing up for the Games running from August 5 to 21 when at least 10,500 athletes from 206 countries are expected to land.
Athletes will compete in 28 Olympic sports at 33 venues in the host city and five additional venues in other cities.
Rio’s mayor has already highlighted the ongoing crime challenges, reportedly claiming there were “big issues” as the city marches towards the Games.
Along these lines, it has also been reported that a police helicopter was shot down over a favela during drug wars. The helicopter’s pilot died in the attack.
But this is what it’s like traveling to Rio. You simply have to appreciate the beaches along with socio-economic realities.