Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s second largest city was discovered by the Portuguese on January 1, 1502. The name Rio de Janeiro means “River of January” because it was discovered in January. However, it is not actually on a river; rather, the city lies on a large bay that the discoverer mistakenly thought must have contained a river.
Rio became the colonial capital. From 1808 until 1821, the Portuguese Royal Family relocated to Rio to escape Napoleon and made Rio the capital of Portugal. This is only instance where a European country was ruled from outside of Europe and when any former colony ruled its colonizer.
After independence, Rio was the capital of Brazil until 1960 when the purpose-built capital of Brasilia was built. Still, the city is the cultural and tourism capital of the country.
While Rio has a very old historic center, the city is best known for the twin urban beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana and its lively culture.
January 3, 2021: Into the Favela
After returning from Ilha Grande, I ate a quick dinner at Bruno’s parents’ home and caught an Uber to my hostel in Rio de Janeiro.
My hostel was located in between the city’s two most famous beaches: Ipanema and Copacabana. It turns out that right in between these two incredibly sought-after neighborhoods is a favella. My hostel was at the entrance to that favela.
Favellas are unregulated neighborhoods. Less nice terms for favelas would be shantytowns or slums. All the cities in Brazil have favelas, but they are usually located far away from the city center in places tourists would never venture. In Rio the favelas are uniquely located on steep hills directly next to the fancy neighborhoods. My hostel in the favela was located 1 block from a 5-star hotel and 2 blocks from Copacabana beach. Never in my life have I seen such a dichotomy of wealthy in such close proximity.
Favelas stem back to the late 1800’s. Soldiers were brought to Rio to fight in a civil war against the residents of Canudos, a town in Bahia. There was no land in town for these soldiers to live, so they built their homes on the steep hills surrounding the city center, an area deemed uninhabitable by the wealthy. That name favella comes from Favela Hill, a major landmark in Canudos.
As the city grew, so did the favelas. The first major influx of residents consisted of recently emancipated African slaves. However, the bulk of the growth of favellas happened during a mass rural exodus from the 1950’s-1970’s. Today in Rio, there are estimated to be between 600-1,000 favelas containing 25% of the city’s population.
Due to their unregulated nature, favelas have historically been out of control of the city. Cities neither provided city services such as utilities nor did they regulate city building codes. This means that the street plans of favelas are completely random and follow no logical pattern. Today, through private-public partnerships, most favelas now have sanitation, water, electricity and trash collection.
The lack of formal control also meant that the city police did not go to the favellas. As a result, the favelas were forced to rule themselves. Many came under the protection of organized gangs, paramilitary forces, and drug lords. For outsiders or enemies of the protecting power, entering the favella could mean death. Favelas also became safe homes for crime. Criminals could commit crimes in other parts of the city and retreat to the safety of their favela. Starting in 2008, a special unit of the police called UPP started to “liberate” the favelas through all-out wars with the paramilitary forces. Only 40 of Rio’s favelas are currently under government control.
“My” favela, Pavao-Pavaozinho, is under UPP control. However, I was still advised to not wander any deeper into the neighborhood than necessary.
What does this all mean in practice? A police car with two armed officers in body armor was always parked at the bottom of the hill. Walking up the hill, I passed by motorcycle taxis taking people deep into the favela. My hostel was only 50 meters uphill so I didn’t get to see very much besides a busy one-lane street. One guy at the hostel did go further in and said he saw children carrying machine guns. That said, thousands of people are living their lives in this neighborhood, so I would assume that for residents and most Brazilian visitors, this place is not a war zone.
My hostel was a historic home that was originally home to the Polish ambassador until the capital moved to Brasilia in 1960. Life seemed pretty normal in backpackerland. The majority of the guests were Brazilians but there were also a number of Americans and Europeans traveling long-term to escape COVID lockdowns and restrictions. My first friend in the hostel was a 35 year-old Mexican-American man and serial dater. He proudly showed me his Tinder app with 1500 active matches. After chatting for 20 minutes, he apologized and said he had to leave for a threesome.
January 5, 2021: Zona Sul
I started my day with Rio’s biggest ticket attraction: Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer in English). The 30-meter statue of Jesus is the symbol of Rio and Brazil as a whole. It was built between 1922 and 1931 by sculptor Paul Landowski. Cristo Redentor was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World thanks to an incredibly aggressive campaign by Brazilian telecom companies.
Cristo is located at the top of Corcovado Mountain, 710 meters (2300 ft) above the city. As a result, the statue is not easily accessible. To reach Cristo, you can either take a historic train or a bus. Both require advanced reservations to limit crowds. I took the train.
The station for the train is located in the middle of a residential neighborhood. From there, it is a 20-minute ride followed by a 5-minute walk to reach the top. Once there, I was greeted by Cristo.
Despite being on just the second train of the day, the summit was crowded. I can only imagine what this is like later in the day or during a non-COVID time.
I was very excited to take a picture with Jesus. For years, I have been perfecting the arms outstretched pose in many pictures around the world. To do my signature pose with the OG was a dream come true.
There were two things that I really enjoyed about Cristo. First is the epic view of all of Rio.
The second thing is the crowds of people awkwardly trying to take pictures with Cristo doing the arms outstretched pose. It is so funny to watch. I’m sure it’s a similar experience at the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
A visit to Rio would not be complete without visiting Cristo, but I would not consider it a highlight of my trip. I honestly found the statue underwhelming. It’s just a big statue of Jesus. I do not think it deserves the Wonder of the World status. Yes the view is amazing, but there are many other amazing views in Rio too.
My next stop was Pao de Acucar (Sugarloaf Mountain in English). This impossible monolith shoots up from the water’s edge right in the middle of the city.
There are two ways to reach the top of Pao de Acucar: rock climbing or the cable car. Big surprise here, but I opted for the cable car. The cable car route actually involves two trips, each taking about 3 minutes. The first cable car ends at a midway station on a different rocky mountain called Morro da Urca. At 220 meters above sea level, the views of the city are pretty spectacular. There is also a surprisingly big shopping pavilion with overpriced food and souvenirs.
The second cable car zoomed over a gap and up to the monolith itself at 396 meters above sea level. Sugarloaf is so steep and rocky and I have absolutely no idea how this cable car got built! Did rock climbers bring up all the construction equipment? Or was everything flown in by helicopter? The museum probably would have explained this but it was closed due to COVID.
The view from the top of Pao de Acucar is unbelievable- way better than Cristo Redentor. In my mind, Pao de Acucar is Rio’s top attraction. If you can only do one thing in Rio, go here.
Back at sea level, I got a quick beer and shrimp empanada at the locally famous Bar Urca.
I then got in an Uber to the Jardim Botanico neighborhood. There, I met up with my business school friend and teammate Andrea. She is a Carioca (Rio native) and was nice enough to show me around for the afternoon.
Our first stop was Parque Lage. This former estate of industrialist Henrique Lage features an Italian-style mansion surrounded by jungle. I would almost go so far to describe it as an English-style jungle garden due to its unruliness. The mansion itself is open to the public, but there was an hour-long line to get in. It appears to be THE Instagram/Tinder picture spot for Gen Z.
Next, we visited the Jardim Botanico (botanical gardens). This landmark garden is ENORMOUS. The perimeter of the garden must be at least 6 or 7 kilometers. Inside, the garden is very well maintained. Something I enjoyed was seeing a great kapok (samauma) tree, the same tree I hiked 12 kilometers to see back in Alter do Chao, my first stop in Brazil. The garden made me reflect on just how far I have ventured.
It was now 15:30 and we were both hungry. Luckily, Andrea made a reservation at a steakhouse. Brazil is known worldwide for its steaks and I noticed that the Brazilians at my school always seem to be ordering steaks at the school cafeteria. Therefore, I was quite excited for this meal.
We ordered the picanha, a cut on top of the rump of the cow. In the US, butchers usually divide this cut into three: rump, round, and loin. That is a shame because my picanha was incredible and likely juicier than either of those 3 US cuts would be.
Despite having delicious and unique foods, Brazil is not known as a culinary destination. Perhaps that is because outside of Brazil, it is difficult to find Brazilian restaurants. The one exception to this is churrasco, a specific genre of steakhouse where waiters bring cubed meats to your table in an all-you-can-eat format. Fogo do Chao is a churrasco chain found all over the world. In Brazil, churrasco is actually regional to the south of Brazil (Sao Paulo and points south). As we were on the central coast, churrascarias were rare.
The sun was about to set so I headed to the world-famous Ipanema Beach. The beach was very crowded. When compared to Joao Pessoa, the people here were way fitter and better looking. Apparently, Rio is known around Brazil for having the sexiest people.
To watch the actual sunset, I headed over to the nearby Pedra do Arpoador, a rock with a sweeping view of the beach. I was far from the only person with this idea.
Then, I strolled along the white and black Portuguese-tiled boardwalk, picked up an acai bowl and watched the show in the skies. Rio has the most beautiful setting of any big city in the world. Sorry Cape Town!
January 6, 2021: The City Center
Very much like in my hometown of Los Angeles, the city center of Rio has a lot of history, but is not a major tourist attraction and known to be sketchy. Rio’s downtown is still the main business district, so it gets crowded during weekdays. However, on weekends it is deserted and all my sources recommend against visiting then. Luckily, this was a workday.
To get to the city center, I took the metro. Rio is just one of a few cities in South America to have a metro system. The original system was built in 1979 with 5 stations and has slowly expanded ever since. The most recent expansion was to Barra da Tijuca in anticipation of the Summer Olympic Games.
The metro is clean, efficient, and cheap (under $1 for a ticket making it one of the world’s cheapest metro systems). In just 20 minutes I was in the city center.
The city center is a humongous place. It stretches from the water all the way to the hills perhaps 2 kilometers inland.
My first stop was South America’s most famous staircase: Escadaria Selaron. Made by Chilean painter Jorge Selaron, this staircase is completely covered in colorful ceramics! Everyone takes a picture at the bottom which says Rio de Janeiro. What people don’t realize is that the staircase is huge. It goes on for maybe 250 meters.
The area nearby was admittedly sketchy and deserted, but there are plenty of tourist police at the staircase itself. My hunch is that during a normal non-pandemic year, the area is a lot busier with international tourists.
Next, I walked through a bunch of very tall buildings to reach the bizarre Rio Cathedral. This circular spaceship building looks straight out of Blade Runner. I have NEVER seen a church like this.
The inside is just as bizarre as the outside. The altar, while large, feels inconsequential in the voluminous interior.
Moving on, I headed to the busiest part of the central business district. This area had a number of narrow streets just wide enough for a car. I stopped at the famed Confeitaria Colombo. This breakfast place is famous for its lavish 19th century Portuguese interior. It reminded me of Porto’s Café Majestic. And just like Café Majestic, it was overcrowded with tourists. After waiting in line for 20 minutes, I decided to see if I could order a pastry to go. It turns out you can, so I got a passionfruit tart to go. It was delicious.
If you really want to eat at Confeitaria Colombo, my recommendation would be to get your picture here and then actually eat at their other locations around the city with the same food and no line. There are at least 3 other locations around the city center of Rio.
Rio’s city center is full of Baroque Portuguese churches. The ones here are as good as anywhere in the country.
Another interesting spot was the former Banco do Brazil headquarters. This 6-story museum/cultural center has art exhibits, a money museum, and the preserved headquarters of the national bank from the turn of the 20th century. The current headquarters of the Banco do Brazil are in Brasilia the capital.
At the northern edge of the city center, I eventually reached the Cais do Valongo. This was a recently uncovered slave port which operated from 1811-1831. During this 20-year period, an estimated 500,000-1 million African slaves entered Brazil through this dock, mostly from Angola. The dock recently became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There is some information on a plaque put up by the US government, but otherwise there is nothing here. I am surprised this dock got the UNESCO designation considering that Rio as a city is already a UNESCO World Heritage Site and because this dock is so small. A little-known fact: Brazil was the destination of about 40% of all slaves coming to the New World.
At this point, I was ready to keep walking, but got an emergency message from United Airlines telling me my flight was cancelled. I hurried back to the hostel to call the airline with a secure WiFi connection. I was able to reschedule my flight for tomorrow morning giving me one less day in Brazil.
With just a few hours left of daylight on what was now my last day in Rio, I headed to Copacabana beach for a long stroll.
Copacabana is both longer and broader than Ipanema. It used to be considered on equal footing with Ipanema, but the neighborhood has deteriorated ever so slowly over the last 30 years. It is still a nice place, but is more middle class rather than upscale. Even on a weekday afternoon, the beach was decently busy with sunbathers and swimmers.
Something you will notice very quickly when strolling a beach in Brazil is the lack of clothing. Both men and women, no matter their age or body shape leave very little to the imagination. My girlfriend used to work for an international mass-market swimsuit designer and told me that they had an extra skimpy size that they only sold in Brazil.
Of course, it is fun to people-watch on the beaches in Brazil, but I think the revealing beachwear is indicative of the Brazilian ethos: honest, upfront, and fun. Brazilians will always tell you truth, they will always tell you exactly how they feel, and they will always be able to out-party you.
As I reached the far end of the 3-kilometer beach, I encountered children and teens passing the football to each other in the air. In Portuguese, this is called altinho When watching people pass the ball, you can’t help but notice the incredible style that they have. This swagger actually has a name: ginga. Ginga gives Brazilians a unique flair and is reportedly the secret sauce to Brazil’s global success in football.
Another popular game in Brazil is footvolley. It is just like volleyball except you can only use your feet. The sport originated in Brazil but can now be found in sunny locations all over the world.
For my last sunset, I put my phone away in the hostel and took a long walk down to Ipanema. The sunset was perfect once again.
For my last night in Brazil, I got dinner with my school friend Ana Paula and her boyfriend Thiago. We went to a very nice Asian fusion restaurant near the City Center.
January 7, 2021: The Bonus Day
I headed to the airport to catch my flight back to the US. However, when looking at the flight board, I could not see the United flight to Houston. It turns out that there was a miscommunication between me and the phone representative. The flight did not leave until tomorrow.
I tried switching flights around to get to Sao Paulo, but to no avail. I was stuck here in Rio for another day. While annoyed, I also acknowledged that there are much worse places to be stuck than in Rio de Janeiro.
I took an Uber back to the hostel to check in for one more night. My original room was taken so I got moved into a 6-bed dorm.
I then called up Ana Paula to see if she was around. She said that she would love to show me around for the day!
After getting some work done, we met up for lunch in the city center at a restaurant called Lilia. This restaurant looked straight out of the trendy Abbot Kinney neighborhood in Venice Beach. The menu changes every day. I had a pumpkin gazpacho, hake fish and mint lemonade. It was so good!
Next, we visited the Royal Portuguese Reading Room, a stunning library that looked “just like Harry Potter”. I don’t think anybody actually reads any of the books on the shelves anymore. People just come in to take pictures.
This section of the city center had plenty of old Portuguese buildings and looked similar to the center of Recife but in slightly better condition. We visited an indigenous art museum which had an exhibit on basketworks from the Amazon. I could not believe what these artists can do. One “basket” was almost 30 feet long and in the form of a snake.
We then caught a taxi to the Museu do Amanha (Museum of the Future). This landmark Calatrava structure houses exhibits on climate change and the future of human’s impact on the earth’s resources. This museum was extremely well done and quite interactive. Unlike most museums in Brazil, almost everything had a description in English.
Interestingly, Ana Paula had never been inside the museum before, although she has swum in the pond outside the building during Carnival!
To watch the sunset, we went back to Copacabana. This time, we visited Fort Copacabana. The fort is a military outpost that doubles as a swanky retail development not so different from Belem’s Estacao das Docas. It is a very weird combination of soldiers marching around everywhere and swarms of people enjoying a coffee.
Ana Paula and Thiago had to head home, so I got a final dinner on my own in Copacabana before going to bed. The next morning, the flight departed on schedule.
Without a doubt Rio is one of the world’s most spectacular cities. The natural setting in unmatched by anywhere on earth; imagine Yosemite but tropical and plunked next to the water.
The cityscape of Rio is also exciting. Unlike other parts of Brazil, there are enough safe wealthy neighborhoods to walk around making it more accessible than, say, Belem where pedestrians can only visit a small portion of the city safely.
The beaches in Rio are not as nice as the Northeast. However, the city has fully embraced the beach culture, which makes visiting the beaches very fun. Everybody dresses like they are ready to go swimming. The beach is the cultural center of the city.
As an international destination, Rio has a huge tourist infrastructure. The people here are able to cater to tourists and you are far more likely to find an English speaker here than anywhere else in Brazil. This also means that there are more tourist traps and touts than in other cities.
Regarding crime, I felt safer as a tourist in Rio than I did in Belem and Recife. Walking alone at night is possible in most of the beach neighborhoods. That is not possible in other Brazilian cities. Many tourists to Rio do not take the correct precautions and run into trouble. I have known many people who have been mugged or felt uncomfortable in Rio. When visiting, make to be on the highest alert and try to avoid situations where a mugging could occur such as dance parties or crowded beaches.
In short, Rio is the world-class destination it is hyped up to be. Yes, the city and country have problems, but that should not deter you from visiting.