Our stay in Brazil began with our friends’ wedding at a remote beach in Bahia. This notoriously underdeveloped Brazilian state offers miles of untouched shores and incredible vistas that deserve the Instagram hashtag #pictureperfect.
But how did we end up in this Brazilian paradise? After our non-stop Edelweiss flight from Zurich to Rio de Janeiro, we transferred to a series of lengthy (yet inexpensive) domestic flights. Trancoso, our final destination, was “just” an hour’s drive from the airport in Porto Seguro, Bahia, but involved travelling over a bumpy dirt road. This fisherman’s village turned celebrity hideout was playing hard to get. But it didn’t take us long to fathom why our friends had made us come all this way: a truly delightful slice of paradise on earth!
Unique ambience high above the Copacabana
After the wedding, it was time for us to travel 2000 km south again, back to Brazil’s most popular tourist destination: Rio de Janeiro. And today, as we stand on the rooftop of our Copacabana beachfront hotel, it becomes crystal clear why Rio’s longest beach is also the most popular outdoor space of its six million residents. Even up here, we can feel the fab beach-life vibes!
Christ the Redeemer statue as a point of orientation
But before we hit the beach and forget about life in the real world, we have arranged to meet Nina Chini Gani at a nearby metro station. Nina is a Rio native and a student of graphic design. Her Rio Street Art Tour is the perfect way to become street-level friends with this gigantic city. On a mission to teach us about the history of street art in Rio, Nina is about to take us to neighbourhoods, through road tunnels and down alleys which we first-time visitors had been told to avoid at all cost.
Nina begins the tour with a crash course in orientation: “You can always figure out where you are by looking at the Christ the Redeemer statue. The statue is facing the harbour in the east, his right arm is pointing towards Ipanema Beach in the south and his left arm is directed to the north.”
With her infectious smile and natural enthusiasm for local street artists, Nina’s English-speaking tour makes us feel at ease in Rio. In fact, our guide is a fitting example for the ease with which most Cariocas approached us during our visit. (Carioca is a Brazilian term encompassing anything and anyone from Rio.)
Inside the hip Santa Teresa neighbourhood
Santa Teresa is one of the stops on Nina’s street art tour. This charming neighbourhood is perched on a hillside above the downtown area offering a bird’s eye view of Rio de Janeiro and the beaches., Santa Teresa is most definitely worth at least one visit, whether on Nina’s tour or on your own accord.
Thanks to the recent reopening of a historical streetcar, reaching this hilly district with its Art Deco houses is easy. The Santa Teresa Tramway connects downtown Rio de Janeiro with residential neighbourhoods, many of which offer B&B’s for individual travellers. On the tram, we secure a seat near one of the exits. There is no better vantage point for taking pictures of downtown Rio.
One of the main tourist attractions in Santa Teresa are the colourful Selaron Steps. The story has it that the outdoor steps were named after Jorge Selaron, an artist of modest means from Chile who loved his Rio neighbourhood very much. In a feat of painstaking labour, Selaron proceeded to renovate the rundown steps outside his apartment by manually placing tile after tile.
His landlord soon threatened Selaron with eviction. So what to do? Locals and tourists donated more and more tiles encouraging Selaron to continue his life’s work. Among the more than two thousand tiles from sixty countries that make up this impressive outdoor mosaic, we even spot some from Switzerland!
Following our guide’s advice, we pass the halfway point which is where most tour bus visitors turn around. On reaching the top, we are afforded a magnificent panoramic vista of Rio de Janeiro. From this historic neighbourhood turned nightlife hotspot, the sweeping views of downtown, the bay area and a nearby favela are truly impressive.
Our day ends at Mount Corcovado high above the city. The only way to reach the top of Corcovado from the parking lot is by special bus. We make it to the base of the impressive Christ the Redeemer statue just in time to take in the 360-degree panorama, followed by a golden sunset.
Touring the Santa Marta favela
Rio’s slums are almost as famous as its beaches. Some of the more recent favela settlements were supposed to be temporary living arrangements. But when the city of Rio failed to provide enough public housing for all of the re-settled residents, people built for themselves. Countless police raids and one famous music video by Michael Jackson later, most of the favelas are now free of gang violence. And some, like Santa Marta, have even opened up to tourism.
While doing research for our trip to Rio, we had debated the ethics of visiting a favela. A quick web search revealed a variety of tours, from (blunt) safari drive-throughs in Hummer vehicles to more educational walking tours. On our second day, we would be joining an officially accredited favela tour, giving us the chance to meet some of Santa Marta’s residents. The decision as to which tour operator to pick was aided in one important way: the Favela Santa Marta Tour would support the local samba school by donating a portion of our admission fees and tips.
Our visit to Santa Marta was an important experience to better appreciate the daily reality of the millions of Cariocas. We went in thinking that we were to donate money or food to the residents we’d meet. However, we soon realised that favelas have a long history in Rio, and that improving the living conditions of the millions of favela residents will require a Herculean effort.
On a wall outside another favela slum, our street art guide points to a touching graffiti depicting a young girl next to an old woman and explains: “Wall murals are often used to commemorate important events for a community - be it the death of a community leader or a tribute to a beloved business owner.”
“In other cases, commissioned wall art is used to advertise a business.” Whether commissioned or simply with the consent of the owner of a wall, street art has been legal in Brazil since 2009. Amending a federal law was quite a bold move by the Brazilian government but, today, the results can be seen in all corners of Rio - from poor favelas to upper class districts. Here, a collective of several famous graffiti artists have designed the walls of a barber shop inside a favela.
Our tour through the streets of Rio ends in a microbrewery in Leblon where we enjoy a cold beer with the other participants and promise each other to stay in touch. Nightfall is approaching, and we can no longer resist the draw of the nearby Ipanema Beach.
Two sunsets in Rio are not enough
When you do the math, a three-day stay comes with two sunsets. We made it a point not to miss either one. So at that particular moment, we are glad to be just a few blocks away from the beach with Rio’s most popular sunset.
Those in the know secure a spot on “The Rock” way ahead of sundown. And with the sun setting behind the “Two Brothers” mountain, we feel goose bumps despite the Rio heat. We are among the privileged few to witness nature’s beauty this evening. Had time permitted, we would have climbed to the top of the “Two Brothers” and enjoyed the sunset from there, too.
Some friends had advised us to avoid Copacabana at night - fair enough. But even during the day, it pays to leave any Swiss watches, jewellery or dSLR cameras in the hotel’s safety box. This goes for pretty much any place in Rio. The trick is to blend in as much as possible, and to avoid trouble. Granted, we had some reservations about the city’s safety record. In the end, it felt no less safe than any other major city in the Americas. Our three-day stay allowed us but a glimpse of the local culture and the tourist sights. From the vibrant beach life to the arts and culture, and even the favela slums: there is just too much to see in Rio de Janeiro! If we have a single piece of advice for first-time visitors to Rio, it is the following: time your day’s activities so that you will end up at Ipanema Beach or at the top of Mount Corcovado in time for the sunset. You will not regret it. As for these two travellers, we are left wondering what the sunset might look like from the top of Sugarloaf Mountain... I guess we will have to return to Rio to find out!