Rio is full of contrasts. It is easily one of the touristiest cities in the World; it is also one of the most difficult cities to travel on a budget. Language is a major problem with even people in the tourist industry barely speaking English. Rio is the host of most popular beaches in the World, the Real Estate is one of the most expensive in the World and, it is also home to the biggest Slum (favela) in the World. Locals can hardly afford to live a comfortable life in Rio as the vast majority of the inhabitants living in buildings that are old, rusty, and ready to collapse. Yet it is the main city hosting two of the most expensive events in the World – Olympics and Football World Cup; The renovation costs of the grand Estadio Do Maracana alone run into the hundreds of millions.
Rio is gorgeous, complex, captivating, disappointing, amusing, and amazing – all at the same time. We loved the outdoorsy lifestyle. We loved the beaches where there is always a game of Futebol, Volleyball or even Futevôlei (a combination invented at the famous Copacabana beach in the 1960’s) going on. People are running, jogging, walking, biking, or just sitting along the 15 Km long stretch of the 2 main beaches – Ipanema and Copacabana. We biked along Ipanema, Copacabana and lagoon – Lagoa. These are the some of the posh and expensive areas of the city. The sandy beaches and the weather are perfect for lounging, playing or going for a swim. It is a perfect city for Gautam’s liking. Nice sandy beaches, sunny moderate weather and sports all the time. If I die early, I have asked Gautam to sell it all and move to Rio.
When we landed in Rio, I had a high fever and we found out that all the major streets leading to our hotel were blocked by the multitudes protesting the hike in bus fares (it started there but quickly escalated to many more issues) to offset for the government’s overspending on the World Cup. We waited almost 4-5 hours for the streets to clear up, but gave up finally & decided to rebook to another section of the city. We witnessed demonstrations, the largest such protests since the 90’s, in various parts of the city pretty much throughout our stay in Rio.
The first city we visited in Brazil was Foz Do Iguazu, but we just stayed there a day and given that it borders with Argentina and attracts a lot of International tourists, people did speak some English and it was a bit easy to navigate. Rio was a completely different story. We got to the Airport and found a person holding a “Need Help?” flag. He was wearing an official yellow FIFA World Cup t-shirt which had a bold green “Can I help you?” written on it. We approached him to ask for some help and information regarding our ticket pick-up for the FIFA Confederation Cup Games and he tells us “No English”. Thanks for wearing that most helpful T-shirt – not.
While I recovered from my infection, we took care of some logistical matters (apply for Bolivian visa, and some official matters from back home) and mixed it with some light beach & outdoorsy fun – all giving us the opportunity to comprehend the pulse & culture of the city. The best part of the city is the amazing Fruits (various varieties) and fresh Juices, it made up for the lack of good Vegetarian food. We met two kinds of people in Rio – some despite of not speaking much English are lively and always excited to meet an Indian. Others just don’t have the patience if you don’t understand their strongly accented, rapidly spoken Portuguese/Spanish.
Undeterred, we got excited about the main event (also the main reason why we ended up in Brazil even when it was not on our original shortlist) – watching international football action. We saw Spain, my most favorite team (and one that Gautam favors if Argentina is not in the equation); thrash Tahiti at the famous Maracana stadium. A once in a lifetime experience to witness Villa, Iniesta & company delight us with the distinctive Spanish brand of organized football. I can’t wait for the Spaniards to repeat their World Cup glory – “Campeones, campeones, hobe, hobe, hobe” means “Champions, champions, we are the best”. “Espana !! All the way”
Our city exploration began on Day 5, with our first stop to visit Cristo Redentor – Christ the Redeemer – statue. It’s not just big; it’s simply humongous up close. The train ride up the lush Corcovado Mountain (where the statue is located) and the stunning Rio city views from the top enhanced the whole experience. Rio is extremely green and houses one of the biggest Botanical Gardens within the city. Sugarloaf Mountain – the other famous peak – along with several other green mountainous formations is what makes Rio singularly unique city topography. Our first Paragliding adventure, over the city, allowed us to soak in this exceptional urban landscape enveloped by the long spread of beaches and dotted with the colorful favelas (slum) and beautiful green city parks.
Past sun-down, the buzzing Copacabana region turns into the unofficial Red-light district.. So we skipped it in the evenings ;-). The Lapa neighborhood, a historical and cultural center located in the center of Rio takes over the nightlife mantle with the most concentration of restaurants & bars. No matter what day of the week it is, there is a party going on in Lapa. Besides, the district is also home to the colorful stairs – Escadaria Selarón, it is the art of a Chilean artist – Jorge Selarón. The stairs are fitted with mosaics made of tiles from all over the world. We found some very interesting ones from India. Arcos Da Lapa is also located in the party district which was constructed in the colonial Brazil to act as a conduit for water supply to the city.
We made it to the poorest neighborhood in Rio – its hillside colorful Favela and also to the rich financial Centro district. The contrast is startling. The Favela is narrow, crowded and dirty as opposed to the Centro which has cable cars, wide streets and is sparkling clean for the most part. Unlike the western culture, the poor neighborhoods are built on the hills and the rich neighborhoods are all on the flat land. The views of the ocean and the city in general are better from the Slums. Despite warnings from some locals, we ventured on our own to the Favela and roamed the streets for a bit (but remained cautious), clicked a few pictures before taking the bus back. The streets of the slums are narrow and crowded, cars cannot navigate easily so motor-cycle taxis are pretty popular and cheap. Of course, these don’t even come close to what we call as slums in India (which are an order of magnitude in worse condition) .. but I guess it’s all relative. Touring the favela was a bit intimidating; we did stand out, not because of our skin color (we can easily pass for a Brazilian), but because of our clothes and the backpack (which calls out very loudly – Tourist).
The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that Rio is a remarkable city to live for people like us. We love the mountains, beach and adventure. The city offers it all. Though we will have to adjust to the lifestyle of contrasts, which will be very hard to do. Oh, and also, learning a local’s language might be easy but mending a Brazilian’s way to accommodate us will be next to impossible. Rio left a bittersweet feeling. We loved it as much as we hated it. We have decided to go back someday, with a bigger budget and give this city another chance.