There’s something about Rio that has always captured my imagination. As a youngster I would read about Brazil in my father’s National Geographic and dream of being able to visit the vibrant, South American country. More recently, having seen Rio de Janeiro host the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and Summer Olympics in 2016, it became the number one place on my wish list. The images of endless beaches, mountainous backdrops and iconic landmarks sat stubbornly in my mind and refused to budge until finally, my dream came true.
The journey to Rio from the UK is a long one. Not being a fan of long-haul flights I was not looking forward to this particular aspect of the trip but if I wanted to visit this alluring city, I would have to endure the eleven hour flight. The flight from Kuwait is even longer, involving at least one stop and a minimum flight time of seventeen hours. That said, it’s still a trip I would recommend.
Our hotel offered breathtaking views of Ipanema Beach, overlooked by the imposing Two Brothers Mountain, the magnificent statue of Christ the Redeemer atop Corcovado Mountain, plus a number of hillside favelas. Rather than blotting the fabulous landscape, these infamous favelas added colour, light and character to the already captivating scene.
Aware of the potential dangers involved in visiting the favelas, we sought the advice of our excellent concierge, Rodrigo. Fluent in English and a previous Rio tour guide, he was able to recommend a tour which gave a percentage of our fee back to the favela community. There are over seven hundred favelas in Rio, each growing in size every year. These densely populated communities sprawl over hills and mountains and are home to Rio’s poorest residents. Many are associated with drugs, violence and hostility but despite the harsh living conditions, over 1.3 million people live in these shanty towns.
We visited Santa Marta, one of only two favelas with working transportation i.e. a cable car or funicular. On the day of our visit, a problem with the funicular resulted in us walking part-way up the hillside. The steps were difficult to negotiate and particularly hazardous in places. It was impossible to imagine how expectant mothers, the elderly or disabled would ever be able to manage. We saw cockroaches, rats and raw sewage; the hot climate adding to the stench as well as our exertions. The climb offered a glimpse into the lives of those living in the favela. Most are not there by choice, they are born into families already trapped by the system. They don’t choose to live in such conditions but have been let down by a government ignoring the problem rather than addressing it.
Favelas are not slums in the true sense of the word. Most homes have clean drinking water, electricity and satellite dishes. Many of the dwellers have jobs in hotels or restaurants and pay taxes the same as other Rio residents. The insides of their fragile homes are clean and tidy, the outsides boasting elaborate, multi-coloured murals. But basic services such as garbage collection, street lighting, sanitation and general neighbourhood maintenance are sadly lacking. This is something Michael Jackson alluded to in his 1996 hit ‘They Don’t Care About Us’. The accompanying video was filmed in the very favela we visited and highlighted the plight of its residents. As a result, the singer became a local hero and a bronze statue of the pop legend now stands proudly on the hillside.
The inhabitants we met were very welcoming. Contrary to what we had read about these inhospitable occupants, they were warm, friendly and genuinely happy to meet us. Some have taken advantage of the touristic opportunities by opening small gift shops or selling refreshments. But they all live with the stigma of a favela address resulting in unjustified suspicion and distain. It was certainly a trip to remember and one I feel glad to have experienced. It’s impossible to get a real feel for a city without digging deep into its soul and our trip to Santa Marta certainly did that. It also made us realise that from their mountainside positions, these favelas can boast the best views of the whole city.
The world famous statue of Christ the Redeemer stands high above Rio for all to see. Day or night, this iconic landmark, a symbol of peace and Christianity, looks down over the city from the peak of Corcovado Mountain. Whatever your religion, you can’t fail to be impressed by this imposing statue, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. So eager was I to see the statue up close, I not only made the trip to the top of the mountain, I also took a helicopter ride for a bird’s eye view! This sightseeing flight was unforgettable and provided views of Christ the Redeemer that I shall never forget. It was truly breathtaking and offered endless photograph opportunities as well as a glimpse of areas you wouldn’t usually get to see. The thirty minute tour flew above endless stretches of coastline, Sugar Loaf Mountain and Corcovado as well as picturesque lakes, the 2016 Olympic Village, the remote Cagarras Islands and the Maracanã stadium. Not forgetting the tumbling spread of favelas.
For a closer look at Brazil’s most famous landmark, we took the train from Corcovado station. The journey took twenty minutes and travelled up through Tijuca National Park. Purchasing tickets wasn’t the easiest of tasks and there was much confusion among visitors but ultimately, it was worth it. There are alternative methods of transport including a tour bus or taxi (or on foot) but the railway is recommended for its scenery. Whichever mode of transport you choose, there are several steps to climb before reaching the statue itself, although there are elevators for the disabled.
Only at the top do you appreciate the sheer scale of the statue. It stands thirty metres tall on top of an eight metre pedestal and it’s virtually impossible to get a decent photograph when jostling for space with hundreds of other visitors. Having said that, it’s still a magnificent sight and one not to be missed when visiting Rio. The view over the city is pretty impressive too.
Another must-see is the aptly named Sugar Loaf Mountain. Situated in Guanabara Bay it is accessible only by cable car which stops at Mount Urca before rising to Sugar Loaf’s summit. Unfortunately, on the day of our visit, the clouds prevented us from seeing what is usually a spectacular sight. Undeterred, we made ourselves comfortable in the mountain top (ironically titled) Beach Club and enjoyed some Brazilian hospitality before making our descent. We may not have been blessed with a panoramic view but we enjoyed our trip all the same and can still claim to have sat atop the famous Sugar Loaf Mountain.
Perhaps one of the biggest draws when it comes to Rio is its beaches. For Brazilians, the beaches are not just a destination, they’re a way of life. Even on cloudy days, people head to the beach in their droves. If they’re not splashing in the surf, lazing on the sand or walking along the shore, they’re jogging, cycling, roller-skating or skateboarding along the promenade. Whatever the time of day, hundreds of people can be seen keeping fit in their quest for the body beautiful – something you are surrounded by in Rio. If you’re in any way offended by the public display of flesh, then Brazil is definitely not for you. People are not shy when it comes to baring all and their lack of inhibitions is not just reserved for the beach. Men and women alike walk through the city in the skimpiest of swimwear as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. But they’re not doing it for attention. Cariocas, as they like to call themselves, don’t really care what anyone else thinks, they simply live their lives as they see fit and thoroughly enjoy themselves in the process.
One thing I learned during my brief visit to Rio is that its people are extremely tolerant and not at all judgemental. They don’t worry about things like fashion, sexual orientation, body image or material possessions, they simply enjoy themselves. Brazil is as extravert as Kuwait is introvert. But whilst they may have a very different viewpoint to that of the Middle East, there are some similarities. One thing the two have in common is their family values. Whether on the beach, in the city or high up in the favelas, their family first attitude is clear to see.
There’s no denying Copacabana is the most famous of Rio’s beaches. Helped by Barry Manilow’s 1978 hit of the same name, its popularity has grown to new levels and it is often cited in the top ten of the world’s best beaches. Stretching 4.5km and flanked by historic forts it is overlooked by many high rise hotels and apartment blocks, as well as the world renowned Copacabana Palace Hotel. It’s also the place to see fabulously intricate sand sculptures (although taking a photograph will cost you a few Brazilian Reals). The promenade is paved in black and white and depicts a geometric wave, a design unique to Copacabana. Whilst Ipanema boasts the same black and white mosaic tiles, its pattern has a different, almost retro, theme. In both cases, the tiles, like the beach, are spotlessly clean.
We were lucky enough to spend time enjoying both beaches. Chairs and parasols are available for hire and the sand is dotted with kiosks selling drinks and snacks. That said, you can purchase everything from suntan lotion to bluetooth speakers without even leaving your seat. Vendors weave their way through the crowds selling everything you could possibly need for a day at the beach. Hats, towels, cold drinks, sunglasses, bikinis, cigarettes, selfie-sticks, skewered shrimp and corn on the cob are all available to buy – you can even pay by credit card!
It’s also impossible to visit Rio’s beaches without watching (or playing) a game of footvolley. The sport was created in Rio back in the 60s and is based on beach volleyball but without the use of hands and with a football instead of a volleyball. It’s fascinating to watch and clearly growing in popularity.
As our trip coincided with Christmas and New Year, it was always our intention to head to Copacobana Beach for the New Year celebrations. To symbolize peace and renewal, it’s traditional to wear white so, suitably attired, we made our way (along with 2 million other revellers) towards the biggest beach party on the planet. Numerous cruise ships had the same idea as they lined up off shore in preparation for the promised firework extravaganza, adding a further touch of glamour to proceedings.
Despite the crowds, spirits remained high and the atmosphere was intoxicating. Never in my life had I experienced such a feeling. A wave of happiness washed over the beach leaving no-one untouched. As midnight approached, more and more people made for the sand until, at last, the sky exploded into a mass of light and colour. Cries of ‘Feliz Ano Novo’ were drowned out by a seventeen minute firework display that surpassed any other I’d seen in my lifetime. It truly was an unforgettable night. From my point of view it was also an emotional one. I’d dreamt of visiting Rio for such a long time I could hardly believe I was finally there; to be there on New Year’s Eve made it even more magical.
Understandably, many roads were closed as a result of the Copacabana Reveillon but an army of buses lined up along adjacent beach roads to transport partygoers back home. Because that’s the other thing about Rio, it’s incredibly well organised. Not only was safety a primary concern – hundreds of police officers and life guards watched over proceedings – a throng of garbage collectors waited in the wings, ready to tidy up once we’d all gone home. In fact, this efficiency wasn’t just reserved for New Year. All week we’d seen beach cleaners sweep the sand and collect rubbish throughout the day, ensuring our beach experience was as safe and clean as it could be. Kuwait could learn a few things from Rio!
It may come as a surprise to some that Portuguese is the official language of Brazil. Unlike many countries, English is not widely spoken and communication may, therefore, be difficult. Having said that, many restaurants offer an English menu and, as expected, hotel reception staff can usually speak good English. Rodrigo suggested a trip to the Hippie Market. Located in Ipanema, this weekly market is as popular with locals as it is with tourists and sells everything from mugs, belts and T shirts to canvas prints and animal skin rugs. It’s certainly the place to pick up your Brazilian souvenirs.
Before leaving on New Year’s Day, we once again made for the beach. Being a public holiday it was particularly crowded but by now we’d adopted the Brazilian laid-back attitude and just got on with enjoying ourselves. I felt like a child again playing in the sea and jumping the waves and was very reluctant to leave. But as the old saying goes, all good things must come to an end. Until the next time, anyway.< Back