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Six Days in Rio de Janeiro

A boy in the Rocinha favela. (Photo: Joshua Pringle)

I recently spent six days and five nights in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, marking my first time in South America. What follows should be taken as one New Yorker's account of his experience, rather than any kind of expert insight. 

Wednesday

After an overnight flight with snippets of sleep, then a long bus ride to Ipanema, I was gratified to settle in to my hostel, an intimate little place with eight beds called The Lighthouse. The staff was friendly, multi-lingual and happy to help out by booking tours and providing information. The girl working when I arrived gave me a map of Rio with notes she had written on it with all kinds of suggestions as to where to go and when.

That first afternoon I did a lot of walking to familiarize myself with the area. I zigzagged through Ipanema and then walked along the beach toward Copacabana. At the point where the Ipanema beach meets the Copacabana beach, a colossal rock juts out into the ocean and offers a crashing pad for the waves. This is where I watched the sunset. As twilight melted into night, it felt more like a last-night-in-Rio type of scene than a first night in Rio, but I wasn't complaining.

The Lapa district, situated near downtown, is a historic area known for lively arts and nightlife, so I took a cab there to wander around. In retrospect, this probably wasn't the best place to go by myself on my first night, as the area is rougher than I expected. Yes, there are a lot of bars and restaurants with music playing, but many of the buildings are chewed up, and I got the feeling like I should have my guard up on some of the darker streets. To give it some perspective, it was here that I saw the only two prostitutes I saw during my stay.

I had a meal in Lapa—stumbling over what little Portuguese I know—and then headed to Leblon for a drink or two, via a bus ride where I'm pretty sure the driver was possessed by the devil. Leblon is the area right next to Ipanema, another lovely beach district with beautiful people. From there, I felt completely safe walking home.

Thursday

Through my hostel, I booked a tour of a favela. Favelas are the shanty towns that have built up around the edges of Brazilian cities, with tiny abodes stacked on top of one another, people living in varying degrees of poverty, and drug gangs that dictate the law of the land. Going with a group of people, led by a tour guide, was an obvious choice.

The favela we visited was Rocinha, Rio's largest, which houses about 200,000 people. Located between Sao Conrado and Gavea, it is one of the nicer favelas in the city. Our tour guide told us that people living there are not destitute or angry about their lives; they work, go to school and have a positive outlook. As we walked among them, it was clear this was the case. They were very welcoming as we walked through their narrow "streets," buying pastries from a bakery or jewelry from a few women. A couple of kids played a song on their makeshift drums for us.

There are two diverging opinions on the topic of favela tours. One is that they are exploitative of people who are poor and don't want tourists around. The other is that the tours bring attention and a bit of revenue to a place that can use both—revenue for obvious reasons, and attention because favelas are badly in need of infrastructure development. I am of the latter opinion. Although the buildings are now built of concrete and brick (at least in Rocinha)—a tremendous improvement over the recycled materials that once made up the walls—the electric wires are bundled like a tangled mess of ivy. The sewage system is completely primitive, with pipes that lead only to exposed trenches.

Our tour group makes regular donations to one of the schools in Rocinha, to which we made our own donations when we visited. From the motorbike rides we took to the top of the hill at the start of our tour, all the way through their jagged pathways, I got the feeling that our guide knew everyone in this neighborhood and was on good terms with them. We of course saw nothing of the favela's criminal underbelly while we were there, which is just how everyone wants it, including the drug dealers who don't want to give the cops a reason to enter.

After the favela tour, I went hang-gliding off the top of Pedra Bonita, a mountain that is 1,700 feet high. This was by far the most expensive activity of my trip, but it was worth it. I highly recommend it—that is, if the sensation of gliding like a bird high above trees that look like little broccoli florets appeals to you. The act of running off a plank into thin air made me a bit nervous, but once we caught the wind it was peaceful and breathtaking.

One random note that I found amusing happened on the taxi ride to the place where I met my hang-gliding pilot. The guy driving the cab had been called by my hostel and told where to go. When I got in, he didn't speak any English, and I could understand almost nothing of what he was saying in Portuguese. (Even when you think you know Portuguese phrases, the pronunciation will toss you off your horse over and over again.) The guy kept talking, though, and it was a while before I caught two words I understood. "Lady Gaga." This I could acknowledge. He popped in a CD and was rocking out to it as he drove. Lady Gaga—apparently the universal language.

Friday

I booked another group tour, this one taking us to the iconic scenic stops. First up was Pao de Acucar, also known as Sugarloaf Mountain. Two cable-car lifts take you to the peak's rooftop, so to speak, with the ocean spreading out on one side and all of Rio on the other. Sugarloaf is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the city. After a stop at a buffet in Copacabana, we were off to Rio's other greatest hit.

Getting to the Christ the Redeemer statue requires a winding drive up Corcovado, the massive mountain that sits in the middle of the city. Once you reach the statue—with Christ spreading his arms, standing at a greater height than you'll ever see him (both in terms of his own size and the elevation of the place where he's planted)—a beautiful panorama awaits. With both Sugarloaf and Christ the Redeemer, however, it's important to go on a clear day. Otherwise you'll be able to see Christ's legs and not much else.

After circling the Maracana soccer stadium, which is under construction for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, we headed into Lapa and took a look at the Sao Sebastiao cathedral, of a modern design that stands nearly as tall as the office buildings across the street. To no surprise, Lapa is not nearly as intimidating when traveling with a group, led by someone who knows where he's going.

We visited the mosaic steps that lead up to the Santa Teresa district, a wide, long stairway decorated in red and white tiles both beneath your feet and along the walls. The artist who does the decoration has received tiles from all over the world, and I hear that if you go during the day he can tell you all about them. These steps are also the only place in Brazil where it's legal to smoke pot. So said my tour guide.

Saturday

When I booked my trip, The Lighthouse was full for the weekend, so for my last two nights I moved to another hostel, The Mango Tree, only a couple blocks away. This place was much bigger, and so there were more people to meet, most of them European or Australian travelers who were taking on multiple cities, multiple countries, circling South America over a span of weeks or months.

It occurred to me that I should probably spend some time on the beach at some point. Saturday was warm and clear for the first part of the day, so I took to the sand, took to the waves, and took in all the gorgeous sights around me. Even though it was technically winter in Brazil, the water felt great. Up and down the beach, wind-surfers weaved in and out of merciful waves (on other days the waves looked downright deadly) and got lifted 15 feet skyward by gusts of wind. I got all this in just in time, as dark clouds soon crept over and a cool wind started coming in, scattering the beach bodies away.

Since it was raining lightly that afternoon, I went to the Botanical Gardens, which, although it's outside, doesn't require sunshine to enjoy. I'm not much of a horticulturist, though, so I breezed through and then headed off to a photo exhibit downtown. Along the way, trying to get to the World Press Photo showing (no affiliation to this publication), I stopped at a fruit stand to get a cup of blended acai that was just as delicious as anything else I ate on my trip, stumbled upon an outdoor concert in a public square downtown, and saw some graffiti so impressive it should have had its own exhibit.

The Mango Tree has a little bar out back that is open at night, and I finished my evening drinking and talking with fellow travelers, including three guys from Peru who had been making their way all over the continent by playing music. A couple of the girls staying at the hostel had run into them on multiple occasions and so invited them back to have some wine. We all became fast friends.

Sunday

On Sundays in Ipanema, the Hippie Market takes over a public plaza. There you'll find all kinds of great jewelry, art, clothing, maybe a street performer or two. I found a stand with jewelry and mirrors made from blown glass that I spent a good amount of time sorting through.

The big event of Sunday, however, was a soccer match between Flamengo and Corinthians, a huge matchup in the running for the Brazilian championship. Again, I went with a group and a guide. The people in our group were very cool, very excited, and our guide was the same guy who led my tour on Friday. But before we could get to the match, something upsetting happened outside the stadium.

As our guide was getting our tickets, our group was standing by a tree near a road that was blocked off from traffic. As a crowd of men was walking down that road, accompanied by members of the Municipal Guard, another crowd of men was yelling at them from the side of the road. Now, I realize people can get crazy about soccer, but both sides were wearing Flamengo jerseys, so I have no idea what they were fighting about. As the group in the road was about to pass out of shouting range, someone threw something into the throng.

I couldn't tell what was thrown, but it prompted two members of the Municipal Guard to come storming toward the other group. One man came out toward them, yelling at them, and without any hesitation, one member of the Municipal Guard tasered the man in the chest. In the next instant, the other member cracked the man in the face with a baton. Lifeless, the man fell backwards and smacked his head against the pavement. Blood started spurting from his eye. The members of the Municipal Guard turned and rushed back to their procession, leaving the man on the ground.

This happened ten feet from us. After a moment of standing there stunned and horrified, we realized we needed to back up and get our distance from what I was sure was about to become a riot. As opposed to quelling violence, such brutality, I thought, would be much more likely to escalate the situation. Luckily that was the worst of it. Pockets of tension formed in other spots, and the police rushed around on horses to break it up, but no one else got senselessly cracked in the skull. A car came and took that man away, but who knows how lethal the blow he suffered was.

When I relayed this story to the woman working the front desk of The Mango Tree later that night, she said of the Municipal Guard, "They're a ruthless breed. They don't care. They're really primitive, but that's just Brazil." She wasn't at all surprised. Needless to say, we were eager to get inside the stadium after that.

Once we shook off the jitters of what we'd witnessed, watching the game was a real thrill. The energy in the stadium was off the charts, with drums pounding, flags waving, and endless chants and cheers giving the air its own seismic register. I wish fans were that impassioned at an Indianapolis Colts game. Eighty percent of the stands were filled with Flamengo fans, so when they scored, you can imagine the mayhem. Unfortunately the game ended in a 1-1 draw. Flamengo nearly won it at the end, and had they pulled it off, the place would have positively exploded.

Monday

Monday was more of a half day, since I had to catch a flight back home that night. I decided to make my last excursion a hike up Corcovado. The previous night I had hung out with a cool South African couple from London, and they came on the trek with me. It was a varsity hike, requiring some very steep scrambling up the mountain. Somehow those two managed to do it in flip-flops, a feat that absolutely baffled three girls we passed along the way. It took two or three hours to power to the top, but once we broke out of the forest and into the sunlight, looking down at a conquered Rio far below, we got our payoff in full.

There are two things you might think are missing from my account of this trip—nightlife and food—and I'll tell you why. For one, I wasn't so much interested in going clubbing or getting drunk, as I was exhausted by the time these days were over and was more interested in waking up fresh the next day than with a hangover I could easily get in New York. And as for the food, Brazilians eat a lot of meat, and I'm a pescetarian, so many of their signature dishes were lost on me. I did have a delectable fish stew in Ipanema one night, but the meals I enjoyed the most were the breakfasts I had with people at my hostels, hearing their stories and tracing together the points on the globe from whence we all came.

Traveling alone on this trip, I was reminded of a line from the movie "Up in the Air." Someone asks George Clooney's character if he ever gets lonely or feels isolated traveling by himself, to which he replies, "Isolated? I'm surrounded." Staying in hostels and traveling with groups, I met so many people in such a short period of time. And from the beach to the slums to the mountaintops, Rio had a multitude of hands to extend.

Joshua Pringle is a journalist, novelist and singer living in New York City. He is the senior editor for Worldpress.org.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Joshua Pringle.

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