Wow, Rio. Even though the city is immortalized in numerous songs, I had no idea what to expect. They’d primed us with warnings about the danger, but when we pulled into port, I thought, this is going to be good.
That doesn’t discount my surprise at our ship being buzzed by a police helicopter as we were being tugged into port.
One of our business professors, Sergio Carvalho, is a native Brazilian. He shared so much about the Cidade Maravilhosa known as Rio de Janeiro, his first order of business being that the translation of maravilhosa (marvelous) does little to capture the heart of Rio, a city full of people who practice the sort of flexibility known throughout the country as jeitinho brasileiro.
Rio de Janeiro mostly faces south and was built up along the Baía de Guanabara, the inlet where our ship was tugged into port. You enter Rio near the mountainous slice of land known as Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain), which is located at the Guanabara Bay on a peninsula that leads into the Atlantic Ocean. The name derives from the 16th-century Portuguese notion that the mountain resembled the blocks of sugar placed into conical clay molds for trading.
We got off the ship fairly early and hopped a cab for Ipanema, where we walked around a Sunday arts and crafts fair known as the Hippie Market. Along with artists’ booths, there were a couple dessert vendors. I tried something that resembled an incredibly dense cupcake that I later found out was called--I think--queijadinha, prepared from grated coconut, sweetened condensed milk, sugar, butter, egg yolks, and possibly cheese. Sergio told us he preferred quindim, a custard served as an upturned cup that contains some of the same ingredients, but I was more than content with my selection. Fortunately, I was traveling in the company of the ship’s doctor in case my arteries seized up.
As if the dessert hadn’t been enough, we stopped for lunch at Vinícius, where I decided it’d be a good idea to try the Brazilian specialty, popular on Sundays, known as feijoada, essentially a stew of black beans, pork, and beef served with side dishes. I won’t get into all the salted and smoked pork parts I found in the clay pot in which it was baked because that’d be an appetite suppressant. My side dishes included a shot, which was apparently too strong for anyone at the table to drink, an orange, and a pot of the hottest pepper sauce I’ve had since South Africa, as well as rice, collard greens, pork rinds, and roasted cassava flour. It was actually delicious. I even made a decent dent in it, but when all was said and done, our table gave away about half our food to a table of friends who had just sat down behind us and who, in spite of all warnings, ordered full meals and appetizers themselves. Good luck, guys!
What else would one do after a heavy meal but go to the beach, of course. Most of you probably know the famous bossa nova song, “The Girl From Ipanema.” Well, according to Sergio, that woman is still living in Rio and though much older now, still walks the beach. It’s possible we saw her. The beach was packed, and as I walked with my feet in the surprisingly cold water, I thought, I get it. I understand why Ipanema and Copacabana get star-billing in so many songs.
In addition to being known for its beaches, Brazil is of course, known for futebol, or soccer, as we call it. They also engage in a sport known as beach football, which is a lot like beach volleyball except you don’t use your hands. Seriously! It was inspiring to watch and perhaps explains all the World Cup appearances by the Brazilian soccer team.
Our next stop was Sugarloaf Mountain, which rises 1,299 feet above sea level and is composed of granite and quartz. It takes two cable cars to reach the summit. The first cable car, or bondinho, takes you to the top of Morro da Urca, where you can walk around before boarding the second car to Sugarloaf Mountain. Each car holds about 60 people. I tried to stand near the window so I could have a great view of the city below.
You also couldn’t forget to look up because off to one side, you could clearly see the 130-foot Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) statue, located atop Corcovado Mountain. Although less than half as tall as New York’s Statue of Liberty, it’s high enough to be seen for miles on a clear day or night.
This was our destination the following morning. We took a van as high as we could up Corcovado Mountain and then walked the two hundred or so steps to the top, where tourists were doing their best imitation of the statue as friends and family took photos, oftentimes with the photographer lying full out on the ground. How more people don’t get trampled up there is beyond me.
We spent the morning at the statue and then we got dropped off in the town of Santa Teresa, a great community of artists and others who actively seem to mourn the loss of their tram, which until an accident in August 2011, brought business to the community. We had a great lunch at Sobrenatural and then dessert and coffee at Cafecite, just up the road.
We decided to walk to our next destination, which was the Escadaria Selarón, the world-famous steps by the Chilean artist Jorge Selarón, who began renovating the old stairway in 1999. At first, he covered the 250 step risers with blue, yellow, and green tiles, the colors of the Brazilian flag. The Escadaria Selarón straddles the Santa Teresa and Lapa districts of Rio and now contains over 2,000 tiles from more than 60 countries. The artist was at the steps during our visit. He still considers them a work-in-progress and he didn’t seem to mind people climbing all over his art. Find me on the red “steps” below.
We kept walking toward the ship, and downtown, we found the São Sebastião Metropolitan Cathedral, a behemoth structure that shoots its conical form 246 feet in the air. With an internal diameter of 315 feet and rectilinear stained glass windows standing 210 feet, it holds around 20,000 people and is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Rio.
On our last day in Rio de Janeiro, we toured Tijuca Forest, a 12.4 square-mile hand-planted rainforest in the middle of the city. By the mid-1800s, the original forest had been nearly destroyed to make room for coffee plantations. Major Manuel Gomes Archer set out to change that, replanting the forest to safeguard the water supply for the city of Rio. Below is a statue dedicated to the workers who did the replanting.
Our guides had a much different day planned for us than weather allowed. Igor tried to point out the various sites of Rio, which we’d have seen on a clear day from this helipad. Apparently, Christ the Redeemer is behind us in the distance somewhere. I was going to have to take his word for it.
Rain in the rainforest, however, was an amazing experience, in spite of the lack of visible animal life and panoramic vistas.
The Tijuca Forest is home to around 2,000 species of plants, 600 species of animals, and 1,000 species of insects, one of which you can see below. I found it at the Vista Chinesa overlook, a gazebo resembling a pagoda, where our group stopped to eat our boxed lunches.
As you can see, our view continued to be obscured by the fog that ate the city.
Meanwhile, we were treated to a brilliant sky the following night.
As an aside, one of our guides told us that the main difference between the Tijuca Forest and the rainforest of the Amazon is that the latter is flat, lacking hills or mountains. We’re headed there next. It’ll take six days on the Atlantic and two days up the Amazon River, and then we’ll be in the Brazilian city of Manaus. Catch up with you then!