Rio is in the spotlight this year, as the city is ready to host two of the greatest shows on earth. After a successful World Cup in 2014, Rio is getting ready for this year’s Olympic Games. However, don’t let samba, caipirinhas and the girl from Ipanema distract you from the spiritual journey that this majestic city could take you on.
We all have idiosyncrasies and one of mine is to drink in every aspect of a country while en-route to the hotel from the airport. I assess a country from what I see, as this route tells you more about everyday life better than any tourist trail in Lonely Planet could.
Much like when you meet someone for the first time; take a step back and take in everything, make an assessment and then proceed. However, never before have I been so taken aback as much as when I went to Rio. Driving into the city, heading into the huge luscious purple mountains that towered above, playing a magnificent backdrop and juxtaposition to the industrial functionality of Rio.
The elevated motorway made a beautiful ting sound every time the tyres passed over a join (this reminded me of a scene in Bjork’s Dancer In The Dark). Although I knew Rio was in a tropical, equatorial country, I never expected it to be this beautiful and green. It’s almost like the Brazilians had built a city in the rainforest with perfect synergy between man and nature.
The most incredible view was from Sugar Loaf mountain. Seeing Rio sprawled out into valleys and bays. You get a real sense of what makes Rio so different from anywhere else in the world.
Most cities are built on someone’s vision, Rio is built for function and practicality. It takes its architecture from whatever is fashionable at the time, the colonial towns of Santa Teresa and Lapa are dilapidated and packed with vibrant character, the rest of Rio built in its affluent heyday of 50s and 60s prefab to the modern minimalist and clinical Leblon. My favourite areas are to the north of the city – passing through the tunnel, you leave the run-down faded gentrification of Rio’s famous beach resorts and enter real Rio, with funk parties and real working class effervescent spirit of Rio.
All this was expected from what I already knew of Rio, but what I didn’t expect were the Favelas. The patchwork of red brick shoe boxes stacked on top of each other, piled up the mountains and sprawled around the city, almost like it was under siege – looking out on the rest of Rio, keeping an eye and holding onto it. I never thought these pigeon-hole slums would have an odd charm.
Looking at them from a distance they seemed like a world no one had access to, almost unreal. Knowing they are overpopulated and the majority of the residents are unemployed, they are ant farms of activity, but you wouldn’t know it looking up at them from Copacabana or Ipanema beach. They are like abandoned towns. There was a mystery and a romance to them.
Another striking thing about Rio was Christ the Redeemer. The French may missed out on colonising the Americas, but they certainly left their mark by giving two glorious cities their most famous landmarks. Christ strikes a formidable figure over the city that you can see from everywhere. I don’t think you realise how imposing it is over the city until you are there.
My personal highlights were dancing the samba at Lapa’s Scenarium, a eclectically decorated jazz club draped in antiques. A delight to someone like me – owning shabby chic before it even became a term.
Going to the Santa Teresa bloco, there was samba live on the street and revellers were constantly being showered by confetti as the city twinkled below – living up to the stereotypical image of Rio and it was beautiful, almost spiritual. Even though the commercial and capitalist bloco of Leblon had a much better atmosphere. Watching the Sunday rehearsal of Beija-Flor at the Sambadrome and reignited the fire in me and reaffirmed who I am.
Rio provoked my biggest life decisions. It affirmed who I was as a person and inspired me in ways I didn’t think possible without even trying. With its beauty, it effortlessly – and almost stealth like – leaves its footprint on you. I fell in love with Rio; the most vibrant, exciting, diverse and interesting city I’ve ever been to. Its spirit is palpable and infectious. If you want to visit somewhere that makes the blood pump through your veins, assaults your senses and makes you feel alive, you must definitely go to Rio. And not just for the sport.