Rio de Janeiro


April 25th - 29th, 2019

Darkness had set in by the time Crystal and I landed at Rio's Galeao International Airport. It was quick and easy to find a taxi to take us to the Ipanema District, where we met up with our lovely Brazilian friend Cristiane. She had organized a beautiful AirBnB apartment in a great location only a few steps from Ipanema Beach for the five of us, including Cristiane's brother Paolo and his girlfriend Vanessa. That night we all went for a very nice Brazilian BBQ dinner in an outdoor restaurant at the nearby General Osorio Park.

The following morning we started with Rio's most famous landmark - Christ the Redeemer. He is located at the summit of the 700 meter high Corcovado Mountain, the top of which can be reached using the cable car. It is advisable to book the cable car tickets at least a day in advance. You can pick the exact time when booking the tickets, and make sure you get there 30 minutes before your scheduled time.

The trip in the cable car took about 20 minutes. By the time we reached the top it started to get a bit cloudy, so we didn't have great views of the city below us, but the Christ the Redeemer Statue itself was very impressive.

The statue stands 30 meters tall and was constructed between 1921 and 1932. It is certainly a popular place to visit judging from the hundreds of tourists crammed on the platform around the bottom of the statue.

Cristiane had arranged a local guide to take us on a city tour afterwards. She first drove us to a lookout point, where we had the most incredible view of sugarloaf mountain, while Christ the Redeemer slowly emerged from the clouds above us. It looked as if he was just floating in the air. This more than made up for the lack of a view we had from the top.


Our next stop were the picturesque Selaron Steps, which seem to be one of the most popular selfie motives. They were built by the artist Jorge Selaron, who in 1990 started to renovate a few of the steps in front of his house and then continued to work on the entire staircase until his death in 2013.

After a quick lunch we continued our tour into the city center. We first stopped at the Mosteiro de São Bento, a Benedictine abbey established in 1590. The main chapel was stunning, incredibly richly decorated and completely covered in gold leaf. Initially built in the Baroque style in the 17th century, the interior was re-modeled in the late 18th century in the then fashionable Rococo style.

From one of the oldest monuments in Rio to one of the newest, we stopped by the shore of the bay to see the futuristic building of the "Museum of Tomorrow" built by Santiago Calatrava (who also designed the World Trade Center Train Station in downtown Manhattan). Nearby was the beautiful mural by Eduardo Kobra, which he created for the 2016 Olympics and has the distinction of being the world's largest mural completed by a single person.

The Metropolitan Cathedral is a modern construction built between 1964 and 1979. The outside, modeled after a Mayan style pyramid, is not much to look at, but the interior is quite impressive as it's just one huge space illuminated through four enormous stained glass windows.

At this stage I continued by myself on foot to take a view more pictures of some of the historical buildings in the downtown area, among them the Palacio Tiradentes (built in the 1920's), which these days houses the state parliament. The beautiful building of the Theatro Municipal (also from the early 20th century) was modeled after the Opera Charles Garnier in Paris.

Other highlights were the Candelaria Church which has Baroque and Neo-Classical style elements, and the very interesting Carioca Aqueduct, which is a colonial structure built in the middle of the 18th century, to bring water from the nearby river to the city center.

On Saturday after a lovely morning walk along Ipanema and Leblon beach, I had decided to do a walking tour through the largest favela in Rio. (Somehow I couldn't find any takers among my friends to join me for that one.)

Favelas in Rio:
Favelas are a very specific phenomenon in Brazil and particularly in Rio. They first appeared in the late 19th century, but most of the current favelas in Rio were started in the 1950s and expanded significantly in the 1970s, when rapid urbanization drew more and more people from the countryside to look for jobs in the city.

It is estimated that more than 11 million (or about 6% of the Brazilian population) live in favelas. The majority of them are in Rio, which has over 700 favelas. There are however significant differences between them. Some favelas are ruled by drug cartels and criminal gangs, while many others are fairly safe and peaceful. Most of them have running water, electricity and basic social services, like schools and medical centers. While life in a Brazilian favela does not seem to be nearly as impoverished and destitute as you would see in slums and shantytowns in some South-Asian or African cities, what is striking in Brazil is the huge disparity in wealth and the lack of social mobility. Brazil is among the more economically unequal countries is the world, and the close juxtaposition of affluent neighborhoods right in front of favelas clinging to the side of the mountains is a stark reminder of that.

I had booked a 3 hour guided walking tour through Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio, which is home to 165,000 people. Our guide Carlos, who was in his 50's, had lived his entire life in Rocinha. He was very interesting and incredibly passionate about explaining to us the social problems and injustices, that make life so difficult for poor people in Brazil. He thought that education was the number one problem in the country, as Brazil is ranked among the worst countries for public school education, which explains why it is so difficult to escape from life in a favela. But he was also keen to point out the positive things, in particular the close knit communities in the favelas that help each other out in any way they can. He told us that the poorest people in Rocinha live on 3 to 4 BRL (about 1 USD) per day. However, about half the people here have jobs outside of the favela, which allows them a reasonable standard of living, but not enough to be able to afford to leave the favela. We started at the top and then slowly walked down through crazy narrow corridors, some of which would barely fit one person.

We saw insane electrical wiring everywhere, and some friendly inhabitants as we made our way through the maze-like walkways. No idea how I would have found my way our of here if I had lost our guide.

On Sunday Crystal and I got up early in the morning to go to sugarloaf mountain. The cable car starts operating at 8:00 am and we managed to be on the very first gondola with only about 5 other people. So we basically had the top of the mountain to ourselves.

It was a gorgeous and perfectly clear morning and the views were absolutely stunning. Rio truly is a breathtakingly beautiful city.

The setting of the city between steep mountains and the ocean somewhat reminded me of Hong Kong. We had fantastic views of Copacabana Beach and of Christ the Redeemer looking at us from the distance.

We took the taxi back to Copacabana, where we were dropped off at the grand old Copacabana Palace Hotel, built in the early 1920's. We walked back to Ipanema along the famous wave-tiled promenade beach walk .

On the weekend Rio's beaches are packed. It seems the whole city comes down to the beach, lots of people are running and riding bikes. Confirming the stereotypes, Brazilians really are not big on wearing a lot of clothes. Everyone, and I mean, everyone, not only the young, fit and beautiful, is showing a lot of skin. Bikinis and bathing suits are made with the absolute minimum of fabric, and the Speedo is alive and well here.

This is Ipanema Beach, which further down merges into Leblon Beach, and the peaks of Morro Dois Irmaos (or Two Brothers Hill) in the background.

We had one more lovely dinner that night, while we watched a major thunderstorm flood the streets. We all left Rio on Monday after a wonderful, interesting and fun four days in what is truly one of the greatest and most beautiful cities on earth.

I had a minor mishap at the airport, as I was supposed to leave Rio to Panama City, where I had planned to spend another three days before continuing on to New York. Unfortunately that plan was foiled when I was informed at the check-in counter that I would not be allowed to enter Panama without a paper certificate for yellow fever vaccination. Even though I had an electronic copy of the certificate, they would not let me on the plane. So Panama will have to wait for another day. I booked myself into an airport hotel and started re-booking my flights, so I could fly the following day straight from Rio to New York. 

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