Arraial do Cabo, my home in Brazil, was just as sleepy as it must have been back in the day when Vespucci got stranded here. A port, fishermen, some charmingly derelict streets and a crumbling ‘plaza’. The latter offered weekend entertainment in form of a little cocktail kiosk. The only reason it was more frequented than the neighboring cocktail cart was its owner and her well-done boob-job that came on display whenever she used the cocktail shaker.
Clouds usually hung low in the sky and with lots of humidity, the rainy season was slowly but surely approaching. The first week I dreamt of Marrakech and felt pretty lonely.
While I tried to settle into my new home and get to work, my body wasn’t having any of it. First my nose was sore from a cold long gone. Then the inside of my mouth started to hurt so badly, I felt like a sailor with scurvy. When eating an additional mango a day didn’t help, I asked the one English speaker at the hotel to write me a note I could take to the pharmacy. My mood was down and my charade skills not up for it. I got my remedy which worked like a charm, but the next day I got such bad cold sores that I didn’t want to speak, drink or eat at all. With that I was in a less than ideal state when I arrived in Rio.
Needless to say, Rio and I needed a moment. The first evening I was scared: would I get a taxi, would I be ripped off, would I safely arrive at my hostel? Even walking from my taxi to the front door I looked around nervously waiting for someone to jump at me.
After years in New York and Cape Town, I was scared in Rio. I can’t tell you what this city had that got me so spooked, but the first night I would have gladly ordered room service if my hostel offered any. My hungry stomach was forcing me to leave, but I didn’t dare to venture far and ended up in a complete tourist trap around the corner. I ordered bad red wine and overpriced food followed by a caipirinha when the wine turned out to be undrinkable. When the caipirinha was also horrible (unacceptable in Brazil!!), I decided to snap out of it. I couldn’t let my fears get in the way of a decent drink and good food.
The next day I threw myself into the deep end and took the bus to the Corcovado, home of Cristo Redentor. Mastering public transport is the crown of mastering a new city for me. I quite hate it, but nothing gives me more instant gratification than arriving at my planned destination for cheap. Know that bus drivers in Rio are super friendly and if you tell them your stop, they will let you know in due time. And when they stop at tourist attractions like the Cristo, they will shout it until the last silly tourist is off the bus.
If you are keen to go up the Corcovado, know that patience is needed here as well as tolerance and quick movements to avoid being hit by a selfiestick. I want to say that seeing the Cristo up close was worth it, but, in fact, the 20-minute drive up and down the Corcovado with the little jungle tram was my highlight. Try to sit on the right when you go up and on the left going down – best views over Rio and if you get lucky, a monkey family or two.
I decided to skip Pão de Açúcar because I would have to combine two of my biggest pet peeves: cable cars and more standing in line. Instead, I went to a “sight”, frequented by Carioca and tourists alike – the beach.
Rio more than any other city I have been to lives off its people. It is not so much about sights, museums and hop on/ hop off busses. It is a city with people watching at its best
Perfect spots for this are the Ipanema or Copacabana beaches and promenades where everybody mingles for some fun in the sun. Here old meets young, rich lies next to poor, and beautiful bodies in tiny bikinis tan next to not so beautiful bodies in the same tiny bikinis. Or as my Brazilian aunt would say ‘In Brazil everybody just lets it hang’. A healthier approach I think than following a billboard advertising plastic surgery as an 18th birthday present.
That feeling only increased the next day when I decided to ditch the ‘what a first timer should do in Rio’ list and went to Jardim Botanico. I am a sucker for botanical gardens; orchids, cacti, really any kind of greenery makes me happy. So I walked for two hours, camera in hand, crouching over leaves, blossoms and stumbling along the Alley of Royal Palms, head in the air, staring at those giant palm trees.
While a botanical garden ain’t the jungle, my sense of adventure was sparked and it was time to go on a food adventure. I was here to find the famed Acarajé, Rio’s most beloved street food snack. How that went down you can read here, but while culinarily disappointing I didn’t actually mind. I always like a little street food adventure and not all roads can be paved with yummy Thai fried donuts!
I spent the afternoon with more beach explorations, walked along the Copacabana and admired the derelict beauty from times long gone. For sunset I returned to Ipanema to check out the views from above at the über chic Fasano Hotel. Oh, that glorious feeling standing in a hotel lobby, dripping in sweat while the front desk is trying to find your name on a list!
The views from above were everything they had promised to be. Just like down on the beach, beautiful people everywhere, but here nobody had taken a bus today or wondered if the caipirinhas on the beach were not cheaper AND better but me.
So I made my way back downstairs and nodded goodbye to the friendly bellboy. Outside humidity hit me and I headed across the road toward the water. Cheap and good caipirinha in hand I headed to pay tribute to Antônio Carlos Jobim.
Have you been to Rio? Did you love it or hate it? And what was your favorite part?