Six Days in Rio de Janeiro, No Stone Unturned

Friday, July 4, 2014 | Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (map)

Guest author and converted Brazil enthusiast Gavin posed on the Selarón Steps in Rio.
For the past few weeks, guest blogger Gavin Lippman has been writing about his experiences at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Check out his eighth entry below, and follow all his posts here.

I finally reached my guest house in Rio after a long, hectic day of travel that included a missed flight, a run-in with ESPN's Ian Darke, and a trip to Rio's second airport to retrieve my bag. After a week in the smaller, more isolated cities of Natal and Manaus I was happy to be back in a large city with plenty to do.

The name Rio de Janeiro brings many things to mind: Sugarloaf mountain, and the legendary Christ the Redeemeer statue perched atop Corvocado mountain. The districts of Rio, like Copacabana (home to a beautiful beach and even more beautiful people), Ipanema (another beautfiul beach in its own right, made famous by the legendary song "The Girl from Ipanema"), and Lapa and Santa Teresa (home to the Lapa arches, Selarón Steps and a huge party scene). Rio is also a huge sports hub, both for soccer—it is home to Brazilian powerhouse clubs Fluminense, Flamengo, Vasco da Gama and Botafogo—and adventure sports like hang gliding, paragliding, hiking, cycling, and rock climbing. But leading up to the World Cup, the press focused much more on the city's negative side, particularly the crime and drugs prevalent in its slums (favelas), giving the sense that Rio is a real danger zone.

To get a true sense of what Rio is like, I decided to venture into the favelas, try some adventure sports, take in a World Cup match at the legendary Maracanã stadium, hang out on the pristine beaches, and mix it up and party with the cariocas.

* * *
During his tour of the Rochina favela, Gavin snapped a shot of the neighborhood and the sea beyond. 
My first activity was a tour of two of Rio's favelas. My introduction to the favelas had come via the movie City of God—a great film if you haven't seen it—and the recent press about the Rio police force's aggressive "pacification" campaign. The guide for our small group, Rachel, described the first favela, Villa Canoas, as "a more organized favela," by which she meant that 60 percent of the homes here had addresses. (I realized this was a big feat when I saw the narrow streets and complexity of the favelas.) The streets were also not nearly as strewn with wire, which favela residents rig up to split electricity. As Rachel explained, community unity is a big facet of favela life. If someone has a problem, a neighbor is always there to help. On weekends, Villa Canoas residents meet at communal barbeques to eat, dance, and party. (I would later hear from expats here that the favelas are home to some of Rio's best parties!) While in Villa Canoas we also visited a school, called Para Ti, that is maintained by the proceeds of the tour itself. While still visibly short on resources, the school's classrooms were beautfiully painted. I later found out that the paintings were the handiwork of an illiterate local resident—yet another example of the favela's inhabitants taking care of their own.

Rochina was an entirely different beast, and we could see the change in attitude as our van wound upward, away from Villa Canoas. While the first favela had been small, Rochina was sprawling, with plenty of nooks and crannies. The power lines hung above in an endlessly branching maze, as people tried to get electricity any way they could. The roads were so windy they could rival Lombard Street in San Fransicsco. As Rachel explained, the favela's layout gave drug dealers plenty of spots to hide weapons, money, and drugs from the police.

The police had recently "pacified" Rochina, and still maintained a large presence in the area. Amid the foot patrols, armed with assault rifles and plate carriers, people were living their lives. The streets were bustling with activity and it wasn't the place of infinite fear that you might imagine. Something about the normalcy touched me; as I took pictures I began to feel a bit guilty. While the favela was definitely a structural achievement, with houses built into the hills, it is still a neighborhood. I tried to put myself in their shoes by imagining people coming to my hometown of Baltimore for a "Wire Tour", snapping photos of East Baltimore and saying "It's really like the show," and "This is where Stringer Bell was killed."

But when we reached our final stop, the local market, the vendors and the local residents out shopping didn't seem to mind our presence. A few told us they want outsiders to see that, while the favelas have had a dangerous past and present, people are happy here. Like anywhere else, the favelas are neighborhoods (well, almost cities of their own) full of normal people living their lives.

* * *
French supporters partied it up outside the stadium in Rio before their match against Ecuador.
As a soccer fan, one of my main objectives in Rio was to enter the Maracanã, one of history's legendary stadiums. Home to seven Cup matches (including the final), the Maracanã has hosted many famous matches over the years, none probably bigger than the Maracanazo. That was the legendary match when Uruguay upset Brazil in the 1950 World Cup Final, and winning goalscorer Alcides Ghiggia famously stated, "There are only three people who have silenced the Maracanã: The Pope, Frank Sinatra, and me."

At first I didn't have tickets to the Maracanã, but I got lucky and met some Parisians staying at the same guesthouse, who offered me a ticket to the Ecuador v. France match. Their only condition was that I wear a France jersey, as I would be sitting among the French team's official supporters. Joining another country's group of hardcore fans was fascinating—especially for me because I don't speak a word of French! As we pre-gamed outside the stadium, I began to pick up some of their chants: "Allez les Bleus, on est chez nous" ("Come on Blues, we are home") and "Qui ne saut pas, n'est pas français" ("If you're not jumping, you're not French", a chant I have heard before at Inter Milan's San Siro stadium). At mulitple points during the pre-game, all the French fans would break out in their national anthem, La Marseillaise, apparently popular at matches because of its heroic, war-themed lyrics.

While the pre-match atmosphere was great, the match—a dour 0-0 draw—was not. But it was still awesome to be inside the legendary Maracanã.

* * *
Posto 9 is one of the more posh spots at Ipanema, just one of several Rio beaches.
The beaches of Rio are truly unique. True, you don't have the white sand and calm clear waters of Caribbean beaches, but there was a different energy in Rio. People of all ages were out playing either beach soccer, volleyball, or the local favorite that is a combination of the two. Drinks flowed from the beachside vendors and music was blasting. It was a very cool atmosphere, festive and mellow at the same time. Of Rio's beaches, Ipanema was easily my personal favorite, and probably the best—and strongest—caipirinha I had was there, at the legendary Posto 9.

The party flows from the beaches into the streets of Rio. I had been downtown and to the Lapa and Santa Teresa districts earlier in the day to see the iconic Arcos do Lapa and walk the famous Selarón Steps. (Recognize them from the video for Pharrell and Snoop Dogg's "Beautiful"?) I was able to meet up with some true Rio natives, or cariocas, who took me to a samba club in the heart of downtown.

Now, I like to think I can dance, and I know the basics of salsa, but samba is a whole different story. The music is great but the rhythms and steps are very fast, plus it is mostly a lower body dance. To quote Chubbs Petersen of Happy Gilmore fame, "It's all in the hips." While I was able to pick up the basic steps and get out there and dance with some Brazilian ladies, they were clearly in a league above me. Nevertheless, the live band was rocking, the beers and caipirinhas were flowing, and a good time was had by both gringos and cariocas. After closing down the club, we made our way to Lapa for a street party. While the Arcos do Lapa were quiet during the day, at night there were food vendors about, Brazilians playing music, and people dancing in the streets, spilling from the packed bars. In the vibrant Rio party scene, it's easy to find a great night fade into morning.

* * *
Rio from above: Gavin climbed both the Sugarloaf and Corcovado mountains overlooking the city.
For my extreme sports fix, I had hoped to go hang-gliding, but my trip was cancelled due to a lack of wind on that day. So I settled for a hike through the Tijuca Rainforest and up the Corvocado mountain to Christ the Redeemer, followed by a rock climbing expedition up the Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain).

The hike up Corvocado was only 2.5km, but it was largely up a steep slope. Since we were only two in the group, our guide Lucas really stepped up the pace, pushing us as we climbed upward through the forest. Adding to the seemingly endless waves of police in Rio, we encountered more on the Corvocado trail. Lucas informed us that kids from the nearby favelas had robbed a Japanese family at the beginning of the World Cup and ever since then armed patrols were crusing the trail. We really pushed ourselves and made it to the top in 55 minutes (a new record for Lucas's tour groups, he said). As we finished the ascent, the statue of Christ the Redeemer finally came into view, and it truly was a sight to behold. It is one of those monuments to which a photo really can't do justice. The statue towers over the entire city; I could see the Maracanã stadium, Sugarloaf mountain, and Copacabana and Ipanema beaches. While the glut of people made it difficult to enjoy the views and take pictures underneath the statue, it truly one of the most wondrous landmarks I have seen.

The next day, with a set of tired legs (even more tired from partying the night before) I and a fellow Yank went rock climbing up the back side of Sugarloaf. Full disclosure: I have never been rock climbing before. While this was not serious rock climbing (à la Cliffhanger or Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible), I was fortunate to have a wonderful local climber named Igor lead us. After an initial period of scrambling up by hand and hiking up very steep gradients, we reached the point where we had to strap on harnesses and begin climbing. Igor judged this point, when we were already fairly high up, the perfect time to let us know that a climber who had recently tried to free-climb this portion had suffered elevation sickness and plummeted to his death. No worries, I thought, as Igor climbed above and positioned himself to belay us as we ascended. I encountered a few difficult portions while climbing, but following a set of white marks on the rocks allowed me to find grips and make my way upward.

That part of the ascent complete, we hiked an alternate route to the top, where we encountered some gorgeous views of the bay and parts of the city. "You know you are perched on a loose rock, right?" Igor asked us, just as we stopped to take our picture. At the summit 20 minutes later, we found more spectacular views of Rio below. Since there were fewer people—and since I was completely exhausted—I really took the time to sit back and enjoy my surroundings. I was a long way from either of my current homes (Baltimore, Maryland and Stuttgart, Germany) but I was looking down on one of the most beautiful cities in the world after having climbed up one of its most iconic peaks. It was one of the trip's most memorable moments.

* * *
Cristo Redentor: Gavin found Rio's iconic Christ the Redeemer statue unfortunately packed with tourists.
On Sunday, I returned to Posto Nove on Ipanema for one last caipirinha and to enjoy the scenery, and it occured to me that my Rio adventure was about to end. Between all that I had seen and done, my six days here had flown by. I was truly sad to go after experiencing the cool pulse and energy that the city and the cariocas had about them. Some of the Rio natives I met implored me to return at a different time. "Come during Carnaval" or "Come when there aren't so many gringos around and you'll enjoy Rio even more!"

Sounds like a plan. Rio, I will return!

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