So it happened, four days after arriving in Rio de Janeiro. I’d been minding my own business, when a man stepped out of the crowd, barked aggressively at me in Portuguese, and pointed a knife straight at my face. At least 20 inches long and double edged, it was the kind of blade that could sever my jugular in a single swipe. Yep, even by Crocodile Dundee standards, this was a knife… and it was already dripping red.
Rio has a reputation for being dangerous. My imagination stoked by movies like City of God, where 9-year-olds tote uzis like water pistols, and recent news footage of civil unrest and riots – not to mention police retaliation – I’d had many a second thought and apprenhension in the weeks leading up to my travels. Even my Brazilian friends, who had after all survived this hail of stray bullets until their current age and who I had assumed would assure me that all the stories I’d heard were exaggerated, had instead warned me: “it’s not like Europe”, “you can’t just walk around”, and “be sure to take a taxi everywhere, especially at night”. Whilst fellow travellers had told me first and second hand stories of robberies, bus hijacks and even murders…
Undoubtedly this party goers’ paradise has a dark edge, but here in Ipanema at least, it feels as safe as Barcelona, or even Beckenham. As for the above situation, I was able to easily placate the knife wielder in question by simply plucking the freshly halved strawberry from the end of his blade and assuring him that I would definitely be back to purchase some of his wares before the market closes (…sorry, if I had you worried there mum! And by the way people, def. check out the Ipanema food market on your visit).
Ok, so I’m only two weeks into my trip and I don’t want to jinx my luck, but honestly the way people talk about Brazil makes it sound like there’s a machine gun shoot out on every corner, and walking more than a block at night is like giving a flashing neon green light to every samba-dancing ruffian in the city to mug/rape/rob you. I will run down some safety tips at the bottom of this post, but for now the safest thing I can say is that I’m having a damn good time…
Lapa is the most famous nightlife district in Rio so naturally this is where I began my Brazilian Odyssey. I definitely wasn’t staying in the Lapa of luxury when I checked into one of the 12-bed dorms at the Caipihostel, but I was at least staying in party central. Catering to a young crowd, the Caipihostel bar is a decent place to kick off any night, but especially on Fridays when the entertainment is curated by the Caipirinha Society – on the night after my arrival we were treated to a moving solo performance by Ive Seixas, who I must confess I developed a bit of a crush on. Check out her in action here.
But this was not an evening for tapping our feet introspectively to an acoustic concert… it was a night for getting wasted on cut price cocktails, and for that myself and the rest of the hostel kids headed to “The Arches”. Real name the Carioca Aqueduct, these impressive white arches stretch across the heart of the district and are the meeting place for thousands of nightowls every evening, who either drink al fresco from street kiosks, listen to live music in bars, or dance to samba, forro and reggaeton – plus other forms of music I’m completely unfamiliar with – in one of the numerous clubs dotted around the barrio. Everyone from bare-chested favela macho men, to middle class mime artists (we met Charlie Chaplin) and not forgetting transexual divas, congregate here, and there is a real carnival vibe, a mish mash of poor, rich and really poor, hanging out in mostly harmony under the watchful eye of the armed police. Ok they did have to arrest one knife wielding junkie just a few feet away from us at one point… although the junkie in question hadn’t been targetting us at least. Plus Mick would have laughed his Australian cotton socks off at the size of his blade. Puny.
Sugarloaf All The Sweeter…
The next day I made a hungover and thirsty dash out of my hostel to check out the nearby Escaderia Selaron, the f@ck-me-this-is-awesome staircase decorated by Chilean artist, Jorge Selaron, who has pimped out these steps with all manner of tiles, mosaics and adornments. Gaudi would be proud, and I think I’ll cover this in a Photo Story soon…
(oh yeah my friend Karina… who features in the next paragraph, would like you to know about the Mural Babilonia that her hostel is decorating, along the same lines at those Lapa steps!)
…sadly I couldn’t linger long as I had a date with my old housemate from Barcelona, Karina, who by a bizarre stroke of luck had arrived in Rio two days before me! We were meeting at the foot of Pao de Azucar, aka Sugarloaf Mountain, one of Rio’s most famous attractions. And this is where I had a second stroke of luck. I bumped into my new French friend from the hostel, Jerome. Both being 36-year-olds surrounded by 20-somethings, we had bonded easily the night before, and seeing him in the hostel lounge I invited him to join us. As he speaks fluent Portuguese and already knew his way around town, I ignored my maps and let the Frenchman lead the way. However half way through the bus journey I suddenly caught sight of Christ the Redeemer rapidly receding into the background and panicked. “Jerome, you idiot, we’re going the wrong way!”
“No, we are not. Pao de Azucar is right there,” he replied pointing at a mountain in the foreground.
I had just always assumed that since Sugarloaf is so famous that it must be from that one that J.C. spreads his arms over the city… but it turns out I was wrong! Good old Jerome… I would have felt pretty stupid waiting at the foot of the wrong mountain (it’s called Corcovado by the way), with no telephone communication, for several hours, cursing Karina’s name in vain.
And so, arriving at the bottom of the correct mountain, we met Karina and her two piekne Polish friends and paid 62 reias each (around 15 GBP) to take a cable car to the top of Sugarloaf just in time for sunset. This is where a picture paints a thousand words, plus saves me a tonne of time… rather than strain my scribbling skills, check out the photos below:
Not that the sprawling city scape, the boats bobbing on the bay, or the sunset were the main attraction. That would fall to these cheeky little chappies, who were nearly as bold as they were cute.
(More Sugarloaf photos soon on Facebook!).
After that it was time for a romantic meal in the shady gardens of Casarao do Paulinho restaurant in Santa Teresa district (a Lebanese restaurant that had run out of hummus), before returning to Lapa for more merriment. This time we decided to head to a club… after being knocked back from one for not having passport ID (still haven’t figured that out! But suggest you take a photocopy with you if you’re planning any clubbing in Rio) Jerome negotiated us a discount to get into Democraticos. This turned out to be a 1970s dancehall style environment, with bizarre, but highly entertaining live music blasted out by what I’d describe as a Brazilian version of Gogol Bordello. We ordered caipirinhas (what else?), to our table, did some daft gringo dancing, and, from the club’s smoking balcony, we watched a hot Brazilian girl doing some impressive twerking at a taxi in the street below.
Learning the Lingo
After a wild weekend in Lapa I checked out of the Caipihostel – which despite the less than sparkling clean bathrooms, cramped dorms, and unnecessarily loud music on perma-play in reception, I actually enjoyed a lot (I’d recommend it to anyone looking to party in Lapa… which was basically my motive) – I moved to a plush apartment in Copacabana which I’d found on Airbnb. From here I would be able to walk to my daily language lessons in Ipanema. Spending some time at a language school is an amazing way to get more out of your trip, but I think you’ve heard enough from me for now so I’ll save the rest of my Rio de Janeiro adventures for another day. In the meantime, here’s a photo of Ipanema beach to keep you going…
Rio Safety Tips
Safety is a key issue when travelling – especially in Brazil, but by taking basic precautions you should be able to avoid 90% of potential trouble, or account for it.
*Start by taking out travel insurance and paying the excess waiver. This way you’re covered for anything that gets stolen, so no need to tackle that knife-wielding maniac to save 50 quid. Just handover your money! You will have to report the crime to the police and contact the insurance company immediately in order to make a successful claim.
*Take taxis whenever in doubt about safety of a region, especially after dark. Many of Rio’s streets are deserted at night, and the streets on the outskirts of Lapa in particular can be dodgy (always taxi in and out of Lapa). As you get to know the city better, you can use public transport more, and during the day you should be fine anyhow.
*Areas such as Leblon, Gavea, Ipanema, Copacabana and Botafogo are amongst the safest – as far I can see – so stay in one of those if you prefer to travel on the safe side.
*Just carry what you need, either loose in your pocket, or a small wallet (ie. no big bulge in your pocket!), especially at night. At night I’d recommend carrying just i) the cash you are willing to spend ii) one card (if any) and iii) a copy of your passport. Apart from your key and maybe a note with your address (useful if you don’t speak Portuguese and want to get a taxi) you really shouldn’t need anything else.
*A spare bit of cash hidden in your key pocket, shoe or bra could help you get a taxi home in the event of having to hand over your wallet.
*Try to hang out with some people who know the city better than you and can be your guide! You can try Couchsurfing for example to meet people online beforehand. Also staying with a homestay network might mean you get a local guide.
*Avoid going up hills. Generally speaking favelas are now considered pretty safe places, after most were “pacified”, however not so long ago, going up a hill – where favelas are based – could mean serious trouble. I’d still avoid going up any hills without a guide as the one or two times I did venture a little ways upwards I felt I was on uncomfortable territory. (Others however swear by the safety of favelas, and there are several hostels in favelas you can stay at…).
Ok that’s about it. Feel free to add more info in the comments section if you have any other good tips, ideas or knowledge…