Hot on the heels of the FIFA World Cup, Rio de Janeiro is readying for an even bigger sporting extravaganza, with all eyes on the countdown clock to the 2016 Olympics. Just over 300 days away from opening at the Maracena, on my recent visit to the beguiling metropolis, locals (Cariochas) were effusive as they expressed their frustration at the yawning delays and monstrous waste, blighting the completion of the major infrastructure projects.
My taxi driver from the airport warned me about the pervasive stench of sewage that continues to be the first fragrance that confronts fresh arrivals. Human waste continues to spill into Guanabara Bay, prompting sailing officials to warn that all Olympic sailing events will be removed from the bay, in favour of the ocean.
But what understandably incenses Cariochas the most is the endemic degree of corruption and kickbacks that seemingly infest every infrastructure contract, whereby a sports facility is priced at $500 million to construct, when in fact $100 million of the price-tag is the “commission” charge. Despite the challenges and profound frustrations, Rio’s legendary allure has been super-charged in the traveller’s eyes, with so much global focus on our next Olympic city. Emerald mountains, Midas-touched beaches, samba-pumping nightlife and a festival-fuelled culture are all essential aspects to Rio’s Ode to Joy.
I started my city exploratory, early morning at Sugar Loaf Mountain. Rising above the entrance to Guanabara Bay, this 4 hundred metre fang of granite rock is scaled by two cable cars, that zip 75 people up in each bubble car, to the insatiably divine views, above Guanabara Bay. The aerial tramway recently celebrated a milestone, clocking up its centenary three years ago, and arguably immortalised by the James Bond blockbuster, Moonraker, in which 007 and the nefarious Jaws duel on the cable car wires.
There is a beautifully paved nature trail that is worth walking, to see the tropical vegetation, birds, and the ubiquitous marmoset monkey. At the base of Sugarloaf Mountain, I loved the small but perfectly formed Red Beach (Praia Vermelha). In a city of fabled sandy stretches, this sweet little spot is intimate, laid-back and the perfect setting for a splash in the water, before the crowds descend.
Named one of the New Seven Wonders in 2007, Christ the Redeemer Statue at Corcovado Mountain is the ultimate blessed view. Crowning Tijuca National Park, the 700 metre summit of Corcovado, means "hunchback" in Portuguese, aptly characterising its distinctive shape. The feverish popularity of this landmark makes it well worth while organising a local guide, who will circumvent the spilling queues, fast-tracking your way onto the famous cog train for the strikingly steep ascent. Operating since 1901, it was the first electric train to be built in Brazil, and hauled the soapstone, concrete and statue building materials up to the summit.
Built to commemorate the centenary of Brazilian Independence in 1922, Christ the Redeemer was finally completed in 1931. At 125 feet and weighing in at over 700 tons, it became the largest Art Deco sculpture in the world. At its base, the statue and its outstretched arms didn’t really appear as mammoth as I imagined, but the seraphic sky-high views across Rio de Janiero are beyond spectacular. I gazed in wonder at the super-realism of the urban and natural landscape. It’s a scene that could inspire a million paintings. Gazing across the city, squeezed like a toothpaste tube between forest-clad mountains and azure sea, I marvelled at how the streets and buildings have been moulded around the striking natural landmarks that serve as its backdrop.
Rio’s historic centre or Centro is undergoing a major renaissance ahead of the Olympics with some serious pockets of old-world charm and winding lanes being freshly dressed with inviting cafes and bars spilling across the cobbles. I took a walking tour of Centro with Lisa Rio Tours, which threaded together a swag of historic landmarks with some of Rio’s oldest nooks and crannies which are being transformed into enticing public spaces.
Rio’s pre-eminent square is Praça XV, located by the city's old waterfront. It was the powerbase for Brazil’s colonial governors and emperors, and it was also the site where the Brazilian republic was proclaimed on November 15, 1889. From the north side of the square, walk through the unobtrusive old archway, Arco do Teles, a vestige old colonial Rio, complete with slender shop fronts and cobblestone streets. The arch is named in honour of the wealthy Teles de Menezes family, who built many of the street's most handsome buildings. You’ll see many 18th-century homes, now converted to offices, shops, and galleries. The district’s main street, Travessa do Comércio, transforms into a bustling outdoor patio of bars, come nightfall. You can imagine this district being a major party zone when the Games come to town.
There is something quite incongruous about Rio’s overtly rapacious sexual appetite, given it’s such a devoutly Catholic city. The skyline is pepper-potted with hundreds of churches, and there’s some striking religious specimens in the Centro district. Tucked away in a shady, quiet spot of Centro is the awe-inspiring Monastery of St. Benedict. main altar can fill you with awe. Layer upon layer of curvaceous and gilded woodcarvings form the main altar, while the towering columns whirl up to the heavnes, with capitals topped by cherubs and angels. Completed in 1641, the artisans continued fine-tuning this artwork, including adding silver chandeliers, for a further 150 years. If you’re up for some Gregorian chanting, make a date with the Sunday mass at 10am.
For a complete change of scenery, Rio’s Cathedral of San Sebastian looks like a bulbous concrete beehive, from the exterior. First impressions are not exactly flattering. Unlike the exuberance of Rio’s baroque churches, the cathedral does strike many as a modernist eyesore. But step inside and you’ll be awe-struck by the four ceiling to floor stained-glass windows which are nearly the size of a rugby field. Accommodating 20,000 people, this massive, cavernous space is crowned with an 8 ton granite rock serving as the altar. How very modernist.
Lisa took us to a resplendent old-school tearoom called the Confeitaria Colombo, the longest running café in the city. I enjoyed a perfect cappuccino and some decadently good deserts called brigadeiro, which are chocolate truffles. Then it was on to Cinelândia (officially called Praça Floriano), a graceful Parisian-style square, crowned with a ravishing the opera house (Teatro Municipal.)
Rio's beaches don't just line the city's edge - they are its beating, bustling heart, where Caricocas flaunt their tight and tanned flesh, choosing to wear as little as publicly possible. I don’t think I have ever seen such skimpy bikinis, the slenderest slivers of cloth held together by a piece of cotton, as if to pay a cursory nod to public decency. Don’t even get me started on the vast band of budgie smugglers strutting the sands. After a few hours, my eyes felt hopelessly assaulted, craving the sight of clothed humanity.
Visit the beach on the weekend, and it’s easy to believe that most locals don’t just live for the weekend, but live for the beach. Beach volleyball and football, the deckchairs, the parasols and the spiffy vendor stalls are all part of the narrative. Over 4kms long and bright white, Copacabana is like a great open-air stage, where the world surfs, jogs, preens, creates sand castles, sunbathes, and plays sport. It flows on to that other famous stretch of sand, Ipanema, which is the most coveted residential neighbourhood in Rio.
Sunday is the day to see and be seen when the beachside avenue running the length of Ipanema and Copacabana is shutdown for traffic. Grab a coco verde ( (coconut drink) from one of the numerous vendors and promenade the beach. Sunday is also the day for Ipanema’s fabulous hippy fair, which is a fiendishly popular market affair, a throng of delightful handicraft stalls and cheap eats.
But the most eye-opening and authentic experience would have to be my walking tour of Rio’s biggest favela, Rocinha. In fact, it’s the biggest favela in South America. I hooked up with Brazil Expeditions for their daily encounter in this heaving hillside shanty town, with a population of over 200,000 residents jam-packed into the hillside. My guide was Edson, a charismatic and enlightening 20-something resident of the favela, who started learning English just three years ago. Edson adeptly guided us through the crowded streets and serpentine lanes of Rocinha which really does operate like a city within a city.
Edson pointed out that mafia rule is still embedded deep in the psyche of residents, which means you never steal anything within the favela. A segment of the community is heavily involved in the drug trade, despite the regular patrols of police. I’d only been in Rocinha a few minutes when the sound of fireworks suddenly ricocheted across the community. It’s a long-standing warning signal to dealers that the police are on the prowl. We met some charming residents including cheeky, playful children, the beautiful women cooking empanadas in the bakery, and a worldly old chap with silver and gold teeth ( who looked like a mafia honcho straight out of central casting) who no doubt could tell a thousand stories. Hollywood has indeed come to Rocinha. The Incredible Hulk and Fast & Furious 5 were both shot here on-location.
Edson led us to what the locals call the “Gate of Heaven”, where we walked out on the roof of a favela apartment for an extraordinary view across this heaving cleavage of high-density living. Locals don’t pay property taxes as they don’t receive basic infrastructure services, like running water or sewerage services. Needless to say, the stench of sewerage can be overpowering in places. But despite the challenges, the can-do, make-do ingenuity of the favela is remarkable, from the spaghetti junction-like electricity system to the incredible ability to construct multi-level apartments in incredibly tight places.
The irony of favela life is that the residents of Rocinha enjoy some of the best city panoramas from their lofty hillside perch. Experiencing a flavour for favela life is an essential Rio experience, and a portion of sales proceeds on the Brazil Expedition tour ( which includes free hotel transfers) directly benefit community projects in Rocinha. www.brazilexpedition.com
Adventure World have excellent touring options for Rio de Janeiro. Head to www.adventureworld.co.nz, 0800465432 or see your travel agent.
By Mike Yardley, Newstalk ZB’s Travel Correspondent on Jack Tame Saturdays. 11.20am