There are few cities where the most spectacular natural scenery known to man and extreme poverty lives side by side – Rio de Janeiro is one of them.
This sprawling city rests in a valley surrounded by mountains which curve around Guanabara Bay and the favelas, or slums as they are infamously known, yet made famous by the movie ‘City of God’.
Rio de Janiero, Brazil
I can easily say that Rio is one of the most visually stunning cities I’ve visited. There’s loads of different pockets to discover and equally as many pick-pockets so you’ll need to be careful. I don’t say this to scare you because I’m not one of those travellers that thrives on unnecessarily worrying people, but I’ve heard far too many stories from good friends and I’ve witnessed some myself, so just be cautious. It’s for this reason that makes Rio the perfect place to put your faith in a local guide to help you explore the city and keep you safe. After all, why should your uncertainty stop you from having a good time right?
The beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana are the ideal stomping grounds if you fancy a stroll, swim or just to relax on the golden sand. Actually, relax is probably the wrong word with the hawkers selling cold drinks and açaí fro-yo, but it is one of the most incredible places for people watching (and incredible is the right word). However, when you’ve had your fill of beach time and you’re looking to explore further afield, you’ll find little as exciting as an Urban Adventures day trip.
During 8 hours you can check off an awesome cross section of Rio’s highlights including Christ the Redeemer statue who keeps watch over the city, walk through one of Rio’s many favelas, cruise around the city as a local on public transport, stroll the streets and sample the more arty vibes in Santa Teresa. There are loads of amazing viewpoints and I found this was the perfect introduction to the city, meaning I could go back and explore the areas I liked again such as Santa Teresa.
City tour of Rio de Janeiro
After meeting our guide Daniel by Copacabana Beach, we made our way to the metro system. Exploring a new city by public transport is one of the reasons I chose this tour, it’s a great way to have a real experience and doesn’t hide any of the dirt and grime which a private transport might. Jumping off at the financial district Carioca Station, we hit the pavements to see the different architectural beauties and photograph endless painted murals.
Next up we boarded the tram system which climbed the mountainside, over the aqueducts which are now used as the tram route, up towards the bohemian area of Santa Teresa – one of Rio’s oldest neighbourhoods and previously only for the rich. It has to be said that views from the top are nothing short of spectacular. So what makes Santa Teresa so worthy of a visit? Well, the streets are paved with cobblestones for one which always gets the seal of approval from me, but the architecture and amount of art galleries, handicrafts, artists and musicians give this area the street-cred thumbs up. There’s a banquet of restaurants on offer so my advice is to take a seat at one with views overlooking the city and bay and enjoy some downtime. Failing this the views from nearby Ruins Park should tick all your boxes.
From here we continued through the streets of Santa Teresa, heading down the hill again but this time on foot to see Selaron’s Staircase, an attraction which even gives Christ the Redeema a run for its money in terms of visitor numbers. Designed and built by Chilean born artist Jorge Selarón, this ongoing and ever changing piece of work continued for 23 years until his death in 2013. These 215 steps measuring 125 meters straddle the neighbourhoods of Lapa and Santa Teresa and are decorated with well over 2000 tiles collected from around the world. Some were donated by travellers, some he hand painted and many others were scavenged from around Rio. The bottom of the steps will deliver you right into eclectic area of Lapa.
If you’re ever in Rio during Carnival, you’ll find many local bands performing on these same streets and perhaps the most well-known group is ‘Bloco das Carmelitas’, named after a convent which we passed on the way to the district of Lapa. This area comes alive at night and will tempt all the tourist dollars from your wallet, but when you’re coming back to Lapa for a night out, it’s advised not to take a watch, jewellery, camera or anything you don’t want to lose. Just take enough money to last you and then you’re good to drink and dance the night away.
From here we boarded public buses through the city and through a series of switch back roads all the way up to the absolute best view of Rio de Janeiro ever, the base of the Statue of Christ. This enormous white statue keeps silent watch over the city and has seen horrific drug wars in the favelas, parties which have run for days and a multitude of changing seasons. With cascading 360 degree views of the city’s beaches, mountains, lagoons and forests, it’s easy to see why this is the preferred place for his watching vigil, and also why it’s named as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. It can get busy but there’s plenty of space for photos and let’s face it, you’re just not going to find a better place for a selfie!
The next part of the tour is a visit to Santa Marta favela. Here we found basic houses with little infrastructure, stacked on top of each other which cascaded and climbed around the mountainside; there is rubbish and raw sewage and frequently the tram is out of action. But also most houses have Wi-Fi and television, peace has been restored by the police and there is a strong sense of community with football pitches, crèches, bakeries and shops. It seems incredible to consider 10 years ago that a visit to Santa Marta would have been unthinkable, yet now it is possible to enjoy a safe walk through this community.
Some travellers see poverty tourism as exploitation and treating humans like zoo animals. Others (including myself) see it as a way to bring money into a community which may not have otherwise seen it. For anyone with concerns about this, be sure to book with a company that uses a guide from within the community, buy souvenirs, a drink and interact with the local people you meet in the community.
It’s also in Santa Marta where Michael Jackson filmed part of his music video ‘They Don’t Care about us’ in 1996. Initially the government was hesitant to allow filming as it wasn’t the image of Rio they hoped to promote, however they eventually relented and well, the rest is history. Erected within Santa Marta is a life size statue of the ‘gloved one’ that still remains to this day along with a view over the favela, Guanabara Bay and Botafogo areas below. We walked through the narrow alleys, popped in to see the work of local artists, learned about the favelas volatile history and the hierarchy system within the community.
From here we took a taxi back to Ipanema Beach and ended our day drinking fresh coconut directly from the fruit through straws as the sun was setting. This full day tour is such a wonderful introduction to Rio and helped us plan the rest of our stay in Rio after we were more familiar with the city. I can’t recommend Urban Adventures enough, the local guide Daniel was relaxed and didn’t mind answering prying questions honestly without the need to dress up the answer. It was a real tour of a city that I was desperate to see below the exterior of.
I’ve included some recommendations below if you’re looking to explore Brazil further. I’m not being paid to mention these companies, I work in the travel industry and they are businesses I have either travelled with or worked with in the past. Why would I do such a thing? Because I care.
Urban Adventures These guys sorted my day tour in Rio and also offer a wonderful selection of city tours throughout the world.
Tucan Travel Tucan adventure tour operator was one of the founding travel companies within South America and offers packages so you can explore the biggest party you’ll ever dance at – Rio Carnival
Bespoke Brazil If you need a help creating a package to suit your preferences, Simon at Bespoke can help plan and build a holiday to remember.
Happy travels folks.