I’ve been to Rio before in 2012, during Carnival. This trip was an in-betweener to have a few days in the sun, on the beach, before heading South to Ilhabela and Sao Paolo and finally to Bolivia.
On a recommendation I stayed at the Marina Palace hotel, which is in Leblon. This area of Rio is on the beach, West of Ipanema. My room was on the 23rd floor, facing East to Ipanema, with a stunning view of the lagoon, and the Christos. For those who haven’t been to Rio, it has these odd little mountains that look like donkey’s ears, covered in greenery, that surround the city. The Christos (which is surprisingly smaller than it looks on TV) sits on one of them, Sugarloaf is another. Favelas cling higgledy piggledy to the hillsides, alongside beautiful old Portuguese architecture, crumbling churches, and a mix of modern highrises and ugly. 60’s/70’s towerblocks.
The Botanical Gardens (Jardim Botanico)
If you aren’t happy enough to sit on the beach looking at the beautiful people, there are plenty of other things to do in Rio. I did the Christo and Sugarloaf last time I was there, so this time I wanted something different. For a haven of tranquility try the botanical gardens, an easy walk from Leblon. Large and lush, towering palm-lined avenues meander off, ending in gushing Grecian fountains, roman arches, stoic statues, meandering brooks and small waterfalls, a Japanese garden and greenhouses full of bright coloured orchids. Apart from the odd large group of chattering, giggly schoolchildren, the people who visit here are as much spellbound by the serenity, as for the beauty. It is No 5 of top attractions in Rio according to Trip Advisor.
Follow the avenue, left out of the gardens, down to the lagoon. This is great for joggers, with a circumference of around 9-10km, and with plenty of wading birds to look at, and a statue of an archer on a rock which is pretty, Ipanema to one side and the hills at the back of Copacabana on the other. You can also get good views of the Christos on a clear day. You can’t swim in the lagoon – not that you’d want to – it looked pretty disgusting. There is a bar at one end where you could probably get a decent sunset view, but it looked shut when I was there. It’s fairly close to some very creepy plastic swans and ducks which I assume are pedalos used when the weather is more conducive to being on the lagoon.
Santa Teres and Parque das Ruinas
Santa Teresa is on the hillside near Lapa, and full of steep cobbled streets, a tram car, a museum and some decent restaurants. It was once the cultural and artistic centre of Rio, full of huge mansions perched on the precarious cobbled streets, and named after the convent of Santa Teresa which still stands, which was built in the 1700’s. You can also visit the coloured steps (Escadaria Selaron), and Parque das Ruinas, which I would put on a must-see list without hesitation. At the centre of this cultural site are the remains of a mansion – once the opulent home of a politician and his ward who hosted lavish parties attended by Rio’s artistic and intellectual elite- which has been converted into haven for modern art. Open to the elements – steel, glass and plastic complementing the crumbling bricks, it commands sweeping 360 degree views of nearly all of Rio, and it is free and blissfully empty of jabbering busloads of tourists. Visit on a clear day, so you can see the tops of the mountains including the Christo, and you won’t be disappointed. The house has a decent coffee shop on the deck, a photography exhibition underneath, and hosts live concerts.
If you are walking in Santa Teresa you will need good shoes and be able to climb up and down steep hills. You can get the Metro to Gloria and hike up the hill which will take about 15-20 mins, but there’s amazing views so you can stop for a justified breather/photo op, or get a taxi if you can find one. There weren’t many tourists walking around when I was there, and whilst I felt safe if you are there during peak tourist season, you would need to watch your stuff.
Beaches and Restaurants
Leblon is well suited for walks along the beachfront during the day and the late afternoons catching the sun on the roof deck of the hotel by the pool, and the stunning views and sunsets West of Leblon. Ipanema beach is, in my opinion, a lot nicer than Copacabana. It is quieter, the sand is whiter and it has lovely views out to little islands dotted off the coast and two donkey eared mountains to the West. There are always volleyball games and surfers to watch. People here are really happy. One thing I noticed this time around is that everyone exercises – it doesn’t matter what shape or age you are. Walking, running, cycling, skateboarding, or working out among the many free exercise stations (for want of a better word) which line the beach at regular intervals, where you can do sit ups, pull ups and various weights –exercise is a 24/7 activity in Brazil. After the sun goes down the beach comes alive with bootcamps and runners. Tanned naked flesh – rippling and rolling in equal measure – is everywhere. It’s a great place to feel comfortable in your own skin. In Brazil the body is something to be on display, nobody is self-conscious. Luckily for the Brazilians even average people are incredibly gorgeous compared to many other cultures, and walking up and down Ipanema you feel the sense of pride and confidence people have in themselves.
Weirdly the beachfronts don’t have many restaurants or shops, and in Leblon – which is a fairly affluent area - you have to go one or two streets back. Like most big cities now there are plenty of chain stores, and in fact Brazil is very expensive. Even a cheap meal will set you back £8. Go a little more upmarket, and meals are the same as in a nice restaurant in London. They add sales tax onto everything so the price you see isn’t the price you pay. None of the places I ate were amazingly spectacular, but if you are looking for a decent salad there is a good vegetarian restaurant in Leblon on Ferreira Street although I’m not sure of the name – it’s near Rota 66. Balada Mix does a shitake burger which wasn’t that bad, and they have a fairly varied menu including meat dishes and their Ipanema restaurant has a pretty patio and serves ice cold beer. If you want to eat on the beach itself there are small stalls where you can get burgers, sandwiches and cold drinks, with umbrellas and plastic chairs, and they all stay open really late – you can mingle with locals here and it has more of a ‘getting into the Rio vibe’, plus a fab place to people watch. The back streets throng with people at night, all sitting outside eating and drinking, so you are spoiled for choice – best to ask a local depending on what you like. Cobacabana has more restaurants facing the beachfront and they all tend to offer the same fare and cater to the tourist trade a little more, and most of the waiters speak English – which is a rarity. I have encountered very few English speakers so I’ve been limping along with my weak Spanish.
The only other suburb went to for dinner was Lapa, which has a New Orleans feel, with shuttered buildings, street graffiti, lots of street music and bars – it’s the hip place to be. You can get the Metro to Cinelandia, come out of the station and walk straight until you see the Arcos de Lapa – an aqueduct build in 1723 - and go right. Be careful in this area of Lapa – my friend had a stone thrown at her when we were here for carnival in 2012, and there are a lot of drug addicts. Most of the restaurants and bars are on Mem de Sá. Unfortunately it is not pedestrianised so the street is clogged with smelly cars and buses, which detracts from the ambience and just adds to the noise levels. I opted for a pizza restaurant on the main drag which was upstairs, which had views of the street. There is a hugely popular restaurant just as you come under the arches with lots of chairs outside where they serve small plates of food similar to tapas. It’s hard to get a table outside due to the popularity, but it’s right next to a really busy road and opposite a garage which put me off completely – I don’t like exhausts blowing over my food!
Safety and Traffic!
This is a major drawback with Rio – the traffic is intense all the time. It takes ages to cross roads. Much like London in 2012, the locals are dreading the Olympics, and there is little in the way of positive buzz or marketing. Security in Rio is crazy strict, I was thrown out of a bank for answering my phone by a stone faced guard wearing Kevlar who wouldn’t then let me back in and it was the only bank within a long walk where I could withdraw cash using my UK debit card. You have to put your bag into a locker and have your mobiles scanned.
I never for one minute thought I was safe, I kept my valuables either locked in the safe in the hotel or close to hand, and I never came out with much cash. Quite a few people told me that assaults on tourists were very common, which is what we got told during the carnival. It’s easy to see why Rio residents aren’t looking forward to even more tourists arriving in 2016 – one taxi driver told me that it was bad enough during the World Cup but at least games were spread out. They are also about to face the hottest summer on record, and there’s a lot of roadworks and building going on in a desperate attempt to get the city ready for the onslaught.
Safety issues aside, Rio is a fascinating city – easy to explore by bus, Metro or tours. Just be careful and watch your stuff, but be prepared to get drawn into the beach life and joie de vivre of a vibrant, modern city.