Looking back, Santa Teresa felt like a small bubble of familiarity pocketed in an immense and foreign city. It sits perched high in the hills overlooking the madness of Rio, almost as a spiritual refuge from the chaos. It’s specialness was it’s architecture – we felt surrounded by the stories of it’s past. Rundown Portuguese mansions wound up the mountainous cobblestone roads with little or no orientation. Roads seemed to split like tributaries in a river, flowing up and down at random. We found it disorienting, often confusing our sense of direction. Does this road take you down or up? No matter what time of day, there always seemed to be action happening along the main drag. Spells of tourists and ‘Cariocas’ (Rio natives) spilled out of the neighborhood bars onto the streets, sharing beers and wearing their patriotic colors. With the World Cup in it’s last few days, fans we’re still holding on to every moment.
We pieced together from various locals the history of this interesting neighborhood. ‘Santa’ (as the locals call it) was originally a refuge for escaped slaves. During the turn of the 20th century when Rio started to bask in the same economic boom from coffee as Sao Paulo did, newly found aristocrats moved in and built stunning Portuguese style mansions. It was an upperclass borough until a dictatorship in the 30’s brought economic hardship and poverty to Santa, where three dangerous favelas up the road began developing. It remained abandoned for decades until artists and bohemians revived it in the 60’s. Of course. We could sense this history walking through the place, a special almost spiritual feel. It was particularly enjoyable to us as it bore the same qualities as early movements in places we resonate with, including Silverlake, Venice Beach, Williamsburg and Shoreditch.
Santa Teresa, for us, was about exploration, meandering in and out of neighborhood hangouts with samba playing, popping into shops selling indigenous handicrafts and trying new food from fried cod balls to pao de quejo. The latter being cheesy tapioca bread which Blake immediately took a liking to, claiming he could eat 50 of them. And tried to.
Lapa. Looking for samba and finding something else.
“Lapa is the center of samba” the guidebook read, and from our brief interactions with locals and other tourists it was the neighborhood’s claim to fame. Our first night in Rio landed on a Friday night so we eager to explore the city and hopefully find some amazing Samba. Not knowing much of the city yet, and having heard the rumors of how dangerous Rio can be, we spent a good 15 minutes deciding whether or not to even bring our phone. Obviously, with only one phone left, we were trying to be very careful. Screw it, let’s live a little dangerously and bring it!
On a Friday night, Lapa is a party. A giant white aqueduct marks the beginning of the area and as soon as you walk through it, you start to see and hear the chaos. The streets were a maze packed with thousands of tourists, locals and street vendors hawking drinks from their makeshift bars. The avenues had become sidewalks and the river of people made traffic come to a standstill. It felt familiar in a way. With the old coloful Portuguese facades and onlookers from balconies, it reminded Blake of a Friday night in New Orleans, minus the beads and boobs.
With the legit establishments charging excessive couverts (cover charges), it was difficult to justify, so we parked ourselves at the corner of the madness and ordered a couple of 20 ounce cevejas from an upscale botecca. Just watching the chaos unfolding in front of us became entertainment enough. The first friend to approach and make conversation was an older German dude drinking a Smirnoff Ice from one of the makeshift bars. Stereotypically, when you see a German, you expect them to be drinking a pilsner of sort, perhaps hefeweizen or a strong, dark spirit thats difficult to pronounce. But this German’s drink of choice was apparently Smirnoff Ice. Go figure. Being the avid conversationalists that we are, we gladly invited our interesting German onlooker to join the table and inquired into his story. After a short grace period of tuning into his accent, we learned that his group of friends, all Smirnoff Ice drinkers, had been all over Brazil watching Germany play in the World Cup. The kicker: they’d been to every World Cup since 1990! Their strategy was to just buy team tickets, leave their families for a month, go broke, and watch every Germany game as long as they lasted in the tournament. This time was clearly their lucky year. After a few “Brosts”, they left us to find more Smirnoff Ice, and we continued our search for samba.
We grabbed a bootleg capirahna from a roadside vendor and proceeded down the streets trying to judge the interior scenes by their street-facing appearance. The lines for the recommended samba clubs were impossibly long and we quickly realized our chances of getting into one were becoming slim. Still, the street was a party and we became content with absorbing the atmosphere from the outside and engaging in an active game of people watching. As we combed the streets, we passed by an open, concrete space with an unfamiliar sound emanating from the inside. This sounds interesting. We ducked into the place and a melodic rhythmic of drums surrounded us.
By accident, we had stumbled into a local, afro-Brazilian crowd getting down to a marching band style ensemble. The fast paced, hard hitting style was awesome. It wasn’t samba but it was an unexpected and tantalizing new discovery, reminding us of what this trip is all about. Accidents. By this time, it was late. And we had a new adventure of trying to get back up the hill to Santa...
Getting Our Tourist On
As much as we always try to do the local thing, you can’t visit a place without seeing what its globally known for. When you think of Rio, you think of two things: Sugarloaf and Christ the Redeemer. As the two most popular tourists spots (and arguably the most beautiful), visiting Rio without experiencing these places would be a big fat mistake.
Sugarloaf mountain is the conicular volcanic peak that you see in all the postcards. Right on the edge of the city, it seemingly emerges straight from out of the ocean, and creates the unrivaled view of the horizon/cityscape of Rio. Visitors ride an old cable car to each mountaintop, allowing for a complete 360 degree view of Rio. It was breathtaking. You can see for miles in every direction. There are so few cities in the world with such a dynamic natural landscape; where the topography of mountains and beaches intermix with skyscrapers and favelas. You can literally see the entire city: Centro, Copacabana, Ipenema, Christ the Redeemer–everything.
As we snapped our obligatory photos (and selfies), we literally looked down as planes approached Rio’s domestic airport. We were literally that high. What a special place.
The next day it was time to check another spot of the the list: Christ the Redeemer, a massive stone statue of Jesus built almost 100 years ago on the tallest visible point in Rio. Trying to time it correctly, we harnessed our inner Disney World child and scaled up the mountain via a railcar/tram (originally built just to transport the statue) to catch the sunset at the top. What we didn’t anticipate were the hundreds of other tourists with the exact same idea.
Regardless of the crowd, it was hard not to feel the powerful presence of this place. The views from here are literally insane. You are so incredibly high up, you feel almost god-like, as if you are Jesus himself looking down on all the children of men. Then you understand why, with arms open, the statue was placed here for all the city to see, and be seen. But with the hundreds of tourists snapping photos gigabytes of photos every minute and positioning themselves for the perfect selfie, it’s hard not to notice the irony of this place; built as an auspicious monument to a revered religious figure, it’s now become more of a mecca for vanity as visitors care more about taking a picture of themselves then contemplating the real significance of this site. But with that realization attainted, we promptly steered through the crowd to get own own perfect cliche selfie.
We timed our trip so that we’d be in Rio for the finals of the World Cup. We knew getting tickets was an expensive and slim possibility, but we knew just being there was sure to be an experience in itself. We hoped, as did 200 million others, that Brazil would be in the finals and we’d see history as Brazil won on home turf. With that fantasy rudely destroyed, the next best option would be to see another South American country instead, hopefully Argentina. As they slowly inched their way to the finals, and we saw the throngs of passionate Argentina fans in Sao Paulo, we knew the finals in Rio was going to be crazy.
Our plan was to head to the Fan Fest on Copacabana beach and watch the game on one of their jumbotrons and basque in a revelry with the thousands of other Argentina fans that had made any attempt they could to come to Rio to support their team.
The subway platform was surprisingly empty given the [something] of the day. Expecting to see throngs on blue and white jerseys and to hear the songs of those annoying vuvuzelas, we saw only a few scattered people, none of whom appeared to be going to the game. Weird. And a little disappointing. Well, maybe this isn’t a big subway stop or something.
The train entered the station and car after car rolled by with only a few people in each. Just as we were beginning to lose hope, a train car rolled by us absolutely backed with Argentina fans. Yes! Exactly what we’re looking for. The doors opened and we raced two cars up to make sure were got in that train. We couldn’t have anticipated what that ride was going to be like. But let’s just say, this sums it up.
As we poured out of the subway stop at Copacabana beach, the atmosphere was electric. With the high afternoon sun blaring down on everyone, the singing and chanting coming from all around you, you could feel the revelry in the air. We made on way onto the beach and saw, for the first time, she sheer immensity of people there to watch the game. Holy shit, this is crazy! There were literally tens of thousands of Argentina fans in every conceivable direction. We quickly decided not to enter the official Fan Fest, and go to the beach side where we could still see the jumbotron but also make a fast escape if things started to go badly.
As the game neared kickoff, every little piece of beach space filled with sweaty, sunburt Argentinas, all drunk as hell and waiting for their team to attain glory. One particularly awesome song that we’d been hearing for a few days, was a song making fun of Brazil and their team. It was hilarious and even the Brazilian fans found it funny. Listen to it below.
The game started and by now we were part of the surrounding tribe. The game was slow and without much excitement, but every little chance for Argentina was felt like a wave of anticipation quickly crashing over you. With everyone well and hammered, including us, and the game nearing it’s end, Germany scored and everyone quickly realized it was over. Fearing for what would happen next, we excited toward the ocean, relieved ourselves in the water with about a thousand other people doing the same thing, and made our way to go eat something for the first time in what felt like days. The better team won, but we could only have imagined what would have happened if it had gone the other way. Next time.
Rocinha By Rocinha
A tour of a favela seemed like a very inauthentic idea to begin with – like touring projects in Harlem or something – but we really did want to experience one of these self created cities. From almost anywhere in Rio, when you gaze up into the mountains, you can see these improvised towns snuggled in often impossible places. Having heard so much about them before, and seeing movies which depicted these shanty towns in so many colorful ways, we really wanted to visit one. A favela is typically a low income neighborhood completely created by the residents. Everything from the individual houses, schools and businesses to the electric and water systems, all created without any help from the government. This aspect fascinated us. Believing that genuine innovation is born out of necessity, we wanted to learn more about a community that could build such infrastructure with basically nothing.
Rocina by Rocina is a newly created local tour company to help give visitors a real sense of what a favela is all about. Our guide was a friendly guy named Eric Martins, born and raised in Rocinha with a serious passion for its future development. His startup is a true testament to how technology can enable anyone with a passion to set up for success – especially someone from a Favela. With a website, Tripadvisor profile and an iPhone, they can market themselves and accept credit card payments. Amazing. The donation based walking tour began with Leo (Eric’s cousin) picking us up at our hotel and taking us on a local bus for the 35 minute ride to his neighborhood. We jumped off the bus into a sprawling flea market selling every kind of good you can imagine, and then packed into a 12 seater van to climb up the steep street to the top of the favela. Leo explained how transportation works in Rocina, that this van and “moto" taxis were how everyone gets around. As more and more locals jammed into the small van and stared at the white foreign faces, we realized we were getting a genuine, local experience. Our initial apprehension started to ease. We weren’t observing the neighborhood from afar but doing a typical daily walk through with someone who lives here.
Under the veins of electrical wires and corrugated roofs we weaved through the alleys, sometimes being told when we could pull our cameras out for photos and when it was best just to pass through and not linger. We felt an overwhelming feeling of humility after seeing what this community has created out of nothing. Their positivity affected us - it would have affected anyone. At one point we stopped on a roof deck overlooking the entire city. Looking out, it makes you realize what you really need to survive and, again, how inventive humans can be.
At one point, we sat down with Eric to ask questions and he explained his point of view on the pacification movement currently happening in Favelas all around the country. It’s a very hot topic currently in Brazil and it was interesting to hear his perspective on it. Basically, the government is sending in the military and police force in an attempt to create security in these neighborhoods. In theory, it’s sounds great, but given the complexity of application, there are many issues that come with it. It seems the police act with impunity in these places and we heard stories of people going missing, people being murdered, and people being moved to other neighborhoods against their will. Here’s a great read on both sides of pacification.
Since Eric and Leo had grown up in the favela before the pacification – when drug lords were the ruling force – they offered great insight into what it was like before and after the new government intervention. Some of the benefits mentioned were that the community was no longer controlled by drug lords and that certain municipal services thought it was now safe enough to service these areas. Drugs and guns aren’t openingly displayed on the streets anymore and some crimes are actually being investigated. To the outside, it might appear to be a safer place, but there are cons that come with this strategy as well. One of the most fascinating was that now that the drug lords weren’t in charge as much, they don’t fund as many public facing projects (like football fields) to gain good will with the people, and, there is actually more crime because the people there no longer fear retribution from the drug lords. As we listened to Eric speak about all these totally foreign issues, the overwhelming sentiment was that he was very passionate about this place and he had a lot of hope for its future. And after experiencing Rochinha with our own eyes, so did we.
The heart of Rio
As we sat on a gigantic rock formation at the end of the famous Ipanema beach, rays warming our skin, waves slowly penetrating every orifice of the rocks in front of us and the city highrises in the background fading away under a layer of fog, the foreign starts to become familiar. It’s in this moment where we stop comparing Rio to LA, Miami, South of France and realize its…Rio. It has its own identity, it is its own place.
The people here are unique; Latin for sure but with their own sophistication. Beach life is expressed in a multitude of forms: the sexy and small bikinis walking down the boardwalk of patterned stone; the surfers, short boarders, boogie boarders and swimmers all catching waves in unison (no territories here, it’s everyone’s playground); the capiranhas are abundant and delicious… and sugary; discarded coconuts litter the ground next to every beach stall. Generally cities make you feel more insular and focused, but Rio’s grandeur allows your mind to drift away. The topography is unlike any other place we’ve ever been. Its uneven and dynamic with no rhyme or reason. The city grew where it’s inhabitants deemed necessary and their social status determined the neighborhood. But one thing is for sure, the beach is everyone’s and you can see all the peoples of Rio here.
The textures of Rio
A few more photos of Rio, no story attached.