The river of January. This sexy city lies on the South Atlantic coast of Brazil… an hour’s flight from São Paulo.
The throbbing pulse of this city can be felt in the cafes, bars,curiosity shops,favelas,kitschy flea markets,hills, popular lunch-by-kilo joints, bohemian neighbourhoods, and of course..the beaches!
Day one: Leme and Copacabana
The Santos Dumont airport is the most breathtaking one I’ve seen. It’s a small strip of land surrounded by the blue South Atlantic waters. The plane curves around the coast, you can catch the first glimpse of the Cristo Redentor standing tall on the Corcovado hill, and flies over the bay before landing.
The city is nestled between lush green hills, with a gorgeous azure coastline..reminiscent of Western cape-South Africa.
I was staying in Leme and staying in Leme has two huge advantages, the beach is right there and the beach is right there!
The morning was perfect for a run on the Copacabana beach and a nice long bike ride along the Avenida Atlantica blvd. There are several bike sharing stands along Copacabana. So when you get tired of running, you can just pull out a bike from the stand and ride back.
I spent the first day orienting myself to the neighborhood, soaking it all in. A short walk around Leme, tucked between the Forte Duque de Caxias-a military base-with splendid views of the bay, the sugar loaf mountain and the Cristo Redentor, favela Babilonia, Av Princesa Isabel and the Leme beach which continues into the Copacabana beach.
Walking further, there’s Avenida Nossa sra de Copacabana- there are a dozen Havaiana (and its main rival ‘Ipanema‘) stores..a myriad colors, patterns and styles! And of course I had to buy the most Brazilian pair I could find!
I strolled down to find a bustling lunch-by-kilo restaurant. This was my best bet to find local and vegetarian food. Their system is quite unique. They hand you a slip as you enter. You serve yourself from the buffet..there was salad, quiches, ravioli, fejoada, goiabada and queijo de minas (aka Romeo & Juliet-cheese slabs and guava jam-its a local specialty and tastes delicious!),caramel custard, chocolate pie…needless to say I had a feast! You weigh your plate and the guy at the counter puts the price on your slip. You pay as you exit and display the receipt.
After lunch, we headed across to Avenida Atlantica, this stretch is along the beach and the wide boulevard. It was ideal for all my shopping..found a coffee and cachaça boutique where I bought some Vale Verde and coffee beans. Ahead, there were curio shops selling Rio t shirts (with the trademark beach walk mosaic designed by Burle-Marx), shot glasses, football gear, beachwear, and more gifting items!
Along the stretch, there’s Doce Cafe Brasil with tables on the side walk- the perfect spot to chill and people-watch after a long day of exploring and shopping! The waiter was super helpful and spoke English, and of course, their carioca coffee was just the right ‘pick-me-up’. By now the sun wasn’t very high in the sky and we crossed over to Copacabana beach to catch the spectacular Rio sunset.
Day two: Urca and Praia de vermelha
After a nice homemade breakfast of eggs, tangerine, tapioca bread and carioca coffee..we were set for the day’s exploring. The weather was warm and sunny, Urca was a short bus ride away.
It’s a beautiful neighborhood, the proud owner of the Pão de Açúcar or the sugar loaf mountain.Two breathtaking cable car rides up (over looking the coastline) and you’re at the top. I was rewarded with a panoramic view of the town of Rio. The hillsides covered with the favelas, right by the upmarket ocean front homes with private pools, the Corcovado in the distance, small bays with yachts, the airplanes landing at Santos Dumont, the fortresses- Forte Duque de Caxias, Forte de Copacabana..
We spent a few hours in the cafes on the first hill and at Pão de Açúcar taking in the view whilst sipping on some guaraná juice (which is quite a hype in my opinion and I searched far and wide but found only canned versions made by Coke-gah!- and never the real fruit juice!)
Praia de vermelha or the red beach, is right by Pão de Açúcar. It’s a small bay protected by the headland, with gentle waves which form and break right at the beach-making it perfect for swimming and paddle surfing. I spotted this bay from the cable car and couldn’t wait to dive in! The water was deliciously cold, a perfect balance to the sunny, breezy day. After a good swim, we rented two beach umbrellas (for just R$10, much cheaper here than at Ipanema or Copacabana) and settled down with some cold beers. Soon after getting all warm and toasty in the sun, it was time for another dip!
The view from the water was breathtaking, the Pão de Açúcar rising tall on one side, rocky hill of Babylon on the other. The coast guard and tourist choppers flying against the blue cloudless sky and the blue-green water on the horizon. I’d put the experience of swimming here high up with Cote D’Azur in Nice, Liguarian sea in Porto Venere and Gulf of Thailand in Koh Tao.
Day three: Homage to the redeemer
I’d seen impressive images of ‘Christ the redeemer’ in movies, photographs or travel documentaries. Now it was my turn to see him in person!
Parque nacional da Tijuca is an hour’s bus ride away from Leme. The tickets are available right on Av Atlantica and the bus picks you up there. It was a sunny day and the drive through the neighborhoods of Botafogo, Humaitá (barrios muy limpias!) was a good glimpse of Rio. A long part of the drive was through the lush green national park.
Once you enter the national park, you can either hike up or drive up Corcovado. We chose to drive up…frankly, getting to the Cristo Redentor was a bit too easy. A bus took us to the top of the hill, where there’s an escalator and elevators to take you to the main platform! So you literally don’t have to make any effort to get there..I almost felt like I didn’t earn it!
The 125ft tall Cristo Redentor was a breathtaking sight. The calm expression on his face, the beautifully sculpted folds of his robe and his arms spread wide from north to south..guarding the city of Rio.
The viewing platform provides a panorama of the city. The hills with the city buildings nestled in between, the yacht club and the 13km long bridge Rio-Niteroi bridge extending across the Guanabara bay, Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas and of course, the muy famosa- Estádio do Maracanã (Maracanã Stadium). Many selfies were then taken with Mister Cristo!
There’s a strategically placed cafe atop Corcovado (of course, the question of tourism has to be addressed..by the cafe and the many souvenir shops selling Cristo as exorbitantly priced key chains, magnets, t shirts..you name it!). Well, my friends and I made good use of the cafe by ordering deliciously cold caipirinhas..perfect for the heady view and the sunny day! The caipirinhas and the afternoon spent chatting with friends atop the Corcovado had worked up a good appetite.
Upon descent, we promptly found us an artsy cafe with live bossa nova music..Gaia art & cafe around the corner of Rua Gustavo Sampaio. It’s got the nicest ambiance with the owner and her family waiting tables and recommending dishes basis your preferences. They had the most interesting topping for the bruschetta, they made a killer burger in whole grain bread, wholesome pumpkin soup and açai, maracuja, abacaxi, laranja juices. Even the drinking water was flavored with fruits and rosemary! We spent a long and lazy evening at Gaia followed by a sunset stroll on Copacabana blvd.
Day four: Futevôley and ‘I’m from Lapa’
No matter how much time I spent at Copacabana and Leme beach, it never felt enough!
The waves were rather huge for us to be able to swim, but that didn’t stop us enjoying the rush of waves and getting swept by the tide only to run back into the water and do it over again!
And of course, futevôley,its only the funnest version of beach volleyball I’ve ever played! After I got out of the water, I joined two people playing futevôley-the girl seemed to be a rookie (very rare to find a rookie!) and the dude was a pro-he even claimed to have been a professional football player (at least that’s what I understood based on my loose Portuñol translation!). I had seen many people playing at the futevôley nets on the beach. I’d figured out that the players couldn’t use their hands, it was like football but with a beach volleyball net! Footvolley, was invented right here in Rio at Copacabana Beach, there are even professional teams and leagues that follow international regulations.
I knew one thing, this was my only chance to try my hand (err..leg) at this game..and considering that no one here knew me (except for my friends!) I could make as much a fool of myself as learning the game required me to! It was a fun time..I got the hang of kicking the ball high over the net with my instep and even heading it. A morning spent playing futevôley is a uniquely Rio and an exhilarating experience :)
After a hearty lunch, we headed over to Lapa. Lapa is a kitschy, bohemian neighborhood with some interesting street art, cafes and bars. A good place to start is the epitome of Lapa’s artistic treasure is the Escadaria Selarón (the Selaron steps)-250 steps covered with over 2000 mosaics and tiles and artwork collected from more than 60 countries. Jorge Selarón-a Chilean artist-started this as a side art project-soon artists and travelers from all over the world contributed tiles. Many of the tiles are hand painted by Jorge.
The pictures on the tiles are beautiful, the colours are vibrant. One could spend hours just looking at each tile, discovering something new about a new country…saddening that Jorge died a tragic death two years back on the very same iconic steps he spent years to create.
I met a Bolivian artist and photographer at the top of the steps, we chatted for a while about travel and India and Brazil. He had moved to Brazil 5 years back to follow his passion for photography and never left. His photographs of the life at the favelas, people of Rio, the architecture, were unique. He guided us to the Arcos da Lapa-the Carioca Aqueducts.
The Lapa Arches were used to channel water from the Carioca river connecting Santa Teresa and Santo Antônio hills, in the 18th century. However, now there’s a tramway that runs on it. The route from central Rio to Santa Teresa is a scenic joy ride! Wandering around Lapa gave me a different flavour of Rio, the colonial mustard yellow buildings, Av. Mem de Sá lined with bars and vibrant street art, churches next to local clubs..Asa Branca is a good old Rio joint to catch some Forró beats. Música Popular Brasileira is post-bossa nova urban Brazilian music, and of course, Samba-Carioca da Gema is a good place to enjoy the Samba beats and learn some Brasileiro moves!
The perfect way to complete the Carioca experience.
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