It’s official, the drivers of buses, taxis, and trams in Rio are driven by maniacs. And I wonder after each ride whether my internal organs have survived intact. We stay in a hostel up in the hills of Santa Teresa, Rio’s historical precinct which is charmingly cobblestoned and made up of narrow, winding and often steep ascents and inclines. Each bus roars up and down the roads with incredible speed and corners like it’s on rails.
On our first day out we hop onto a tram heading into the central district and learn that one just jumps on and off the moving tram as required because there are only three official stops on the whole line. Geographically, Rio is a splendidly impressive city surrounded by purple mountains and fringed on each side by the infamous Copacabana and Ipanema beaches. Unfortunately for us, most of our stay in Rio is dampened by grey skies, rain, and mist but on our last day the sun comes out and we rush out to see as much as we can before our flight. Peter is in charge of all ground transport and logistics, despite possessing even less Portuguese (the only word we know is Obrigado – thank you) than Spanish he manages to get us across the city on buses, subways, and trams to most of the sites.
We manage to get up to Sugar Loaf Mountain and Christ the Redeemer which affords us 360-degree views of the city and the enormity of its urban sprawl is quite a sight. From our vantage point, it looks almost as if the city burgeoned between the cleavage of the mountains, set up shop and is still continually growing. We are amazed at the sheer scale of the favelas (the slum areas) which span for miles across the hillsides and mountains. We did fleetingly get to Copacabana beach on one of our first days but it was deserted and deprived of the thronging masses of beautiful bodied sun worshippers that the beach is popular for.
We did join a day tour which took us around Rio’s famous landmarks – Maracana Stadium where we stepped into the footprints of Pele, Rio’s Cathedral, the samba schools and stands where Carnival is held, Sugar Loaf mountain and of course Corvocado – where Christ the Redeemer stands with arms outstretched as if to embrace the city. Unfortunately, it is rainy and grey when we get up to the top of Corcovado and the statue is clouded over. We are disappointed not to be able to see very much of the city and have no joy in getting a clear picture of Christ the Redeemer so we head back down the elevator to board the bus. Suddenly there was a shift in the wind, we looked up and there it was, as clear as day so we bolt up the stairs and manage to get a few decent pictures before the clouds came back over us again.
Due to the disagreeable weather for much of the next few days, we spend a decent amount of time in Santa Teresa itself which is very pretty and our hostel (which is perched atop 3 flights of steep stairs) affords clear views of Rio’s central business district and surrounding hillsides. The neighborhood is made up of old mansions (which is what our hostel once was), characteristic residential homes with walls covered in ivy and punctuated with lookout points boasting expansive views of Rio’s bays, beaches, and mountains. I take advantage of the free wifi on a soggy afternoon to email friends and family and we catch a lazy few hours watching DVDs while the shared lounges areas are quiet at that time of day.
On a good day, Rio is a very inviting and lively city. It’s nightlife also has a lot to offer those interested in samba (which it is famous for), bar culture and restaurants but we are a little exhausted from the solid traveling we’ve been doing over the last month which has finally caught up with us. Also, I am decidedly nervous about safety issues as muggings are notoriously frequent in our area and two backpackers get mugged in the middle of the day around the corner from our hostel at a tram stop. Considering that there are constant police patrols and police presence on every tram line, this is pretty brazen and sets me a little on edge. However, one of the simple pleasures we do enjoy is being perched on the narrow front balcony of the hostel with a cold beer in hand watching the city come to life in a wave of twinkling lights through the mist as night falls. In the background, we hear happy chatter and laughter of fellow backpackers coming back after a day of sightseeing and they join us on the balcony to swap stories of our lives back home, what we had seen that day, where we’ve been so far and where we are going next.