They say start as you mean to go on, but I’m hoping that promptly posting my first blog will compensate for the inevitable lull that will accompany the continued rise of my enjoyment (slash inebriation) levels in the coming weeks.
That being said, sitting on Copacabana beach with a caiprinha in my left hand and a pen in my right, it feels rude not to paint a pretty picture of the flamboyant capital of Brazil’s third most populous state while everything in the real world is apparently falling apart.
For a lot of people, Brazil is one of those countries that you only get to see on the telly, and if you believe everything you find on Google images Rio is the magical land of sandy beaches and beautiful people.
While it is exactly that, the first thing I noticed on the bus from the airport was the abundance of colourful favelas stacked against the mountains. Indeed, the locals here call this ‘the real Rio’, and it’s hard to ignore the backdrop of slums that dwarf the glamorous hotels lining the seafront.
Many of the favelas have now been pacified, as the city sought to clean up its act in preparation for hosting the World Cup and recent Olympic Games, and walking through Vidigal (a favela in Leblon facing the ocean) felt remarkably safe. Even though I was still keen to keep my hands close enough to my pockets, some people choose to live in the favelas now that security is higher, prices are lower, and the views stunning.
Indeed, it is only by making your way through one of the slums that you get a true feel for the Carioca spirit which is lacking in other parts of the city where there remains a concrete divide between rich and poor.
Safety in Rio definitely feels like it’s improving, and the natives have no apprehensions about running topless down the coastline, showing off chiseled bodies and a wide array of tattoos in a way that I’d never be capable of pulling off.
However, Rio’s enormity means it remains an intimidating city, and as the gringoest gringo there ever was it’s been important to err on the side of caution in a Portugese speaking country where the ‘Inglês’ sticks out like a Skoda in a Porsche garage.
The city itself is worth visiting purely for the breathtaking views. Climbing the Dois Irmãos gave me a bird’s-eye look at the contrasting sides that characterise Rio, with the slums occupying one side of the summit and the beaches growing out from the other.
Although Cristo Redentor is listed as one of the new seven wonders of the world, the scenic surrounding trumps the statue more than Donald trumped Hilary (sorry). In all seriousness, I found myself hardly looking at the big Jesus man towering above me, as the views of Pão de Açúcar, Copacabana beach, and the shadows of the mountains glued me to the shutter button on my camera.
The best view of the mountains comes at sunset on Ipanema beach. As the sun slowly descends towards the ocean, Dois Irmãos casts a shadow over the beach, somehow illuminating the sand and drawing silhouettes of the thousands of people still lined along the seafront. In this case, a picture really does speak a thousand words, and catching the sunset was the only reward which could motivate me to sweat through a run on this trip.
On the whole, South America is notorious for not having the best transport links, but it’s incredibly simple to navigate your way around Rio (even if I did catch the wrong bus on my first day).The efficient metro system connects you with most parts of the city, which led me to the neighbourhoods of Lapa and Santa Teresa.
It is here that you really experience the colour and vibrancy one would associate with Latin America. Walking up the romantic Escadaria Scelarôn (the steps where I like to think Snoop Dogg and Pharell smoked a fatty filming the music video for ‘Beautiful’) and the cobbled streets of Santa Teresa provides an artsy break from the hustle and bustle of downtown Rio.
As night falls, however, the tranquility in this part of the city gives way to the sights and sounds of Rio’s nightlife. Having just hosted the biggest party on earth I would have forgiven the locals if they were still recovering from a two month hangover. But when the sesh calls Brazilians answer with a contagious enthusiasm, and the streets of Lapa were alive with people singing, dancing, and drinking before stumbling into nearby clubs for their nightly fix of Latino music.
Indeed, the people of Rio approach their nights out in the same way they do every aspect of life: with passion. This huge city has felt like a real baptism of fire into South America, and I’m sure there are a few stones I’ve left unturned.
Although the natural beauty dictates that it’s not necessarily a case where the people make the city, it’s easy to tell that the locals take great pride in where they come from, and they have every reason to.
Next stop, the slightly quieter Ilha Grande. Until then.