As Rio gears up for its moment in the spotlight, SameSame visits the ‘marvellous city’ to explore. This is the first in a series of articles from Rio de Janeiro state, where we discovered that there’s much more to this place than beaches, football and Carnival
It’s late. I’m tired. It’s been a long flight. I wheel my heavy suitcase out to the taxi rank at Galeão airport. An attendant tells us it’ll cost R$100 to take us to town. I know for a fact that it should cost about half that. And so it begins, my first taste of Rio – the bending of the rules, the endless hustle, the need to remain one step ahead. I eventually find a taxi that’s charging the real price and jump in.
Without seatbelts we roar along the freeway in the dark, past the mountains dotted with lights from the favelas, past the cavernous, empty Sambadrome, past Christ the Redeemer glowing atop of Corcovado Mountain. Our taxi driver gets lost, so he winds down the window at the traffic lights to ask a fellow motorist for directions. They chat for a while, even after the lights go green.
Rio is a city with a reputation. It’s chaotic and exotic, with an element of danger. It’s wild and unruly. Sensory overload. Sometimes, up close, you have to work a little harder to see the beauty, but from a distance or up high, it’s unmistakeable. Rio truly is one of the most world’s most stunning cities.
We spend our first few days in Santa Teresa – these bohemian hills are filled with artists, boutiques, funky bars and buzzing restaurants. The area’s tightly wound streets perturb even the most experienced Rio taxi driver. Lavish mansions peek out from behind high walls and security gates, as police on horseback clip-clop by. There’s a feeling of calm here and the views across downtown Rio are something else.
Cafecito is a Santa Teresa favourite – their outdoor garden is perfect for a sunny afternoon cocktail. For fine dining, head further up the hill to Aprazível, where it’s difficult to decide which is more impressive, the food or the view. When Kylie visited Rio last year, this is where she had lunch. What can we say, the girl’s got taste. If you’re after cheap and cheerful, check out Simplesmente – it has a great vibe and delicious Brazilian fare at a decent price. After dinner, head to Sinônimo in nearby Lapa, the area’s newest and best gay bar. Or if you’re after some serious gay clubbing, you must visit The Week.
After a few days relaxing in the hills, we finally feel ready to head down to the Zona Sul, Rio’s tourist heartland. In Australia, I’ve never really felt like a beach person, but here, it turns out to be the highlight of my trip. Copacabana and Ipanema beaches are spectacular – endless blue, rolling waves, golden sands, gay pride flags waving in the breeze, crowds of sexy people playing volleyball and soccer, jogging and rollerblading. Kiosks line the shore serving snacks and cool drinks beneath umbrellas.
On the weekends, don’t miss the best outdoor markets in Rio, Feira de Arte de Ipanema (the hippie fair). If you’re looking for the best churrascaria (barbecue) in town, Ipanema’s Porcão is top notch. Garota de Ipanema (The Girl from Ipanema) is another great restaurant with excellent, mid-priced cuisine. Try the linguiça – delicious pork sausage. If you’re after a trashy, gay night out on the dancefloor, check out Le Boy.
Rio is a city with many faces. Even at its most beautiful, life is lived in parallel with the poverty in the favelas and the social problems that this brings. While one can dwell on the inequality, it’s far more inspiring to see how the city is facing the issue head on and trying to bridge the gap. One by one, favelas are being ‘pacified’, which means bringing them back into mainstream society. Instead of clearing them, the government is investing in them instead, through art and community projects, education and the implementation of vital services like police stations, schools and public transport. It hasn’t been a smooth process, but slowly these areas are being stitched back into the social fabric. If you do decide to do a favela tour, be sure to choose a company that promotes ethical tourism and reinvestment back into the community.
You haven’t truly seen Rio unless you’ve gotten up high – Christ the Redeemer is the tallest vantage point in the city, but often swathed in cloud. The cable-car ride to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain is spectacular, especially at sunset, and with a café and a forest walk at the summit, you can spend hours up there watching the planes take off from nearby Santos Dumont. For the adventurous, there’s the cable car that glides over the cluttered skyline of Complexo do Alemão favela, or you can take to the skies in a hang glider from Pedra Bonita.
With so much change afoot and optimism in the air, now is a really exciting time to explore this truly remarkable city.
Located in the same suburb as the famous Christ the Redeemer statue, this charming, spacious guesthouse is tucked away at the end of a quiet cobblestoned street and backs onto lush rainforest – it even has its own personal waterfall gushing down the hill behind.
Casa Beludi feels like an intimate homestay, but there’s enough space for you to have privacy. Guests can leaf through a book while reclining on the sofa, sip on a sweet, refreshing jug of mate, swing in a hammock, listen to the waterfall or play with Mário, the distinguished, serene resident whippet.
Our suite was enormous. The two-person Jacuzzi in the bathroom was a highlight, as was the private balcony with a sofa, hammock and view of the waterfall. Big windows, wooden floors and plentiful, comfy sofas make you feel at home.
We arrived tired from a long flight and within minutes all lethargy evaporated. The staff ordered us a pizza and whipped us up a couple of tasty drinks as we chilled on the sofa. There was a cool breeze blowing, we could hear the waterfall, and we were hypnotised by the twinkling fairy lights which flicker and snake their way throughout the house at night, around birdcages and rusty bicycles. Giant letters are scattered throughout the guesthouse too – our apartment had an E and an A in propped up in one corner. If they were part of a large, cryptic puzzle, I was too relaxed to solve it.
Breakfast is glorious – a newspaper and a chalkboard exclaiming ‘bom dia!’ greet you, along with fresh fruits, pastries and coffee. I loved the breakfast smoothie – fruity and refreshing.
Private rooms start at R$350 (A$160 per night) for two people. Visit Casa Beludi’s website.
Owned by artists Maurício Dias and Walter Riedweg, this 1888 Victorian villa is another great find in bohemian Santa Teresa. Walled off from the madness of Rio, this charming house has four suites and three rooms, and centres around a large outdoor swimming pool with an honesty bar and sauna, surrounded by manicured lawns. Breakfast is served outdoors on the shaded terrace, overlooking the pool.
Art lovers will enjoy the library, which is teeming with arty books. There’s a computer to use, or you could even make use of the grand piano, if you’re so inclined. There’s wi-fi throughout the house too.
Rooms feel cosy and comfortable, with wooden floorboards, built-in closets and large windows to let in plenty of light and breeze. They’re very secure – some have heavy wooden shutters to completely erase the outside world, which comes in handy during Carnival or New Year’s Eve, or if the neighbourhood dogs get too rowdy.
The location is great – the street is safe and quiet, it’s around the corner from the bustling Bar do Gomes and a short stroll to Santa’s main strip, where you can find plenty of restaurants, boutique stores and bars. Our host, Clayton, was super helpful, drawing up maps, printing out instructions and giving us the scoop on the best places to go nearby. He also gave us directions to Parque das Ruinas, a cultural centre nearby that gives 360 degree views across Rio.
Rooms start at R$200 (A$91) per day, suites at R$300 ($137) per day. Visit Villa Laurinda’s website.
Another Santa Teresa treasure, this mansion blends tropical gardens with colonial architecture. Built on a generous, steep block of land, it offers amazing views through the mango trees to the Rio skyline.
The complex consists of the main house, which has a dining room, a pool and a number of shaded, leafy areas where you can relax, as well as a number of smaller standalone properties built behind. We stayed right up the back of the block and loved the peace and quiet, and our cute, private sun-drenched garden out front.
Our host, Sadakne, was a breath of fresh air – laid-back, friendly and helpful. The house has a lush gardens and a real creative, funky vibe – you’ll find local artists’ work hanging on the walls and there are regular live music nights too featuring local talent.
A big plus is that the staff speak fluent English. While bumbling your way through Portuguese can add a fun dimension to your travels, sometimes it’s nice to be able to speak and be understood, especially after a long day.
Breakfast is plentiful and the coffee is spot on. Each morning a new cake or rich pudding is served with breakfast and it’s always irresistible. The bread and butter pudding was out of control. There’s free tea and coffee available all day, they have a bar on-site if you fancy just sipping by the pool, and the location is ideal – you are only a short stroll from Rua Paschoal Carlos Magno, the heart of Santa Teresa. The prices are great too – definitely one of the best value guesthouses in the area.
Rooms start at R$110 (A$51) per day. Visit Casa MangoMango’s website.