(Due to the size of the Rio de Janeiro post, I’ve split it into two parts. This is part one. To see where these places are, see this Google Map.)
Had I generated Rio de Janeiro’s landscape when starting a new game of Sim City, I would immediately have pressed ‘re-generate’. No way would any sane person build a city on that hill-and-mountain strewn land. But, the early settlers did just that, and lucky us that they persevered, because it is those very same mountains and hills that make Rio stand out as the stunningly beautiful city that it is. Add to that the endless beaches and a population of sex-on-legs beauties and you will not find a more gorgeous city in the world!
Am I in love with Rio? No.
For all the beauty, Rio is somewhat shallow. Sun, beach and parties take up so much space in Rio that it doesn’t try very hard to do anything else. It is like an ice cream shop selling hundred varieties of vanilla ice cream, but nothing else. Great if you are into vanilla; not so great if you are not.
So, this post will mostly be about the sights I saw. But first, we must deal with the criminality.
Wherever I go, I am always warned about the level of crime. The advice usually comes from people who have never actually been to these places they warn me about, and the warnings are usually exaggerated. But when the locals themselves warn you about their city, as they do in Rio, then you know that it is time to pay attention.
Crime is a very real and present danger in Rio, and you should take it seriously. It should not stop you from going, but you need to take precautions. Leave valuables at home. Don’t show off your mobiles or other shiny things in public before you’ve checked your surroundings. And most importantly of all, pay attention! Look at the people around you. Don’t mindlessly walk down unknown neighbourhoods. And if groups of poor looking young men start following you or seem to ‘eye you up’, find a shop or other safe place to stop off at until they leave. And don’t hook up with some tasty local and agree to ‘go the beach to enjoy the moonlight’ or some other insane thing.
This all sounds like paranoia, but it is not. This is advice given to me repeatedly by the people living here. This is what they do, and they don’t look like a tourist! You do!
Again, Rio isn’t so dangerous that you should not go, but it certainly warrants extra precautions.
Final safety tip: In most places, crowds are your friend. Sure, pickpockets love crowds, but you are not gonna be violently robbed in a crowd with all those witnesses. This is not the case in Rio. Crowds attract a unique form of attack only really found in Rio called an arrastão. This is when a large gang of poor criminals from the favelas descending on a crowd, using their numbers to intimidate and rob as many people as possible, usually unleashing panic. This is what happened to me when I was punched in the face in the middle of a large parade in broad daylight. Pay attention, even in crowds!
The Big Must-See Sights
Christ: The Redeemer
Apart from being the latest White Wolf RPG, Christ: The Redeemer is also the #1 tourist attraction in Rio. It doesn’t matter if you are interested or not; visitation is compulsory.
You need two things to see X: The Redeemer. Clear skies and a good alarm clock. The latter is so that you get to the ticket office the second they open. Dally and you will stand in queues for the rest of the day.
Once up by the Christ, fall in step and do what everybody else does: try to take a photo of yourself with your arms outstretched. Had the Art Deco artist who designed The Redeemer been kind, he would have sculpted Jesus with arms stretches straight up, requiring less space for each mimicking tourist. As it is, expect to be slapped around a lot.
I’ll let you decide which is more impressive, the statue or the view.
The Sugar Loaf
The second main landmark of Rio, the Sugar Loaf, are two mountains right by the bay. To visit, you take a gondola from the ground to the first mountain, then a second gondola from the first to the second mountain. There isn’t anything to do there apart from admire the view, but what a view!
If you go up at around 4pm then you get to see the view during daylight, sundown and night, three different experiences that you should not miss.
A favela is a slum area located up on the sides of the mountains, and you can see them everywhere. There are 950 favelas in Rio, and 20% of Rio’s inhabitants live in them, so they are not an insignificant factor in the city.
They were formed by poor people needing a place to live, so they simply built their homes on unoccupied land. The favelas became a problem as drug lords filled the authority vacuum left by the government. Lately, the government has tried to take control of the favelas away from the drug lords by ‘pacifications’, meaning they move in with tanks and armies to root out the drug lords. This has been effective on a local level, as the pacified favelas are now safe-ish places. But, the majority of favelas are still firmly controlled by the drug lords, and should probably not be visited.
But, there are many companies now offering tours of the pacified favelas. It feels a bit uncomfortable to go on this kind of misery tourism, but ignore that and go. It is a sobering visit that shows what a deeply unequal society really looks like. The guide we had knew the history well and 40% of our ticket price went to help fund a school within the favela.
We booked our tour through favelatour.com.br.
I like gardens, but I would rarely claim one to be a ‘must see’ of any city, but the Botanical Gardens of Rio is just that. It is more a Botanical Park, it being so large, and it will take most of a day to see. Highlights are the many alleys of towering palm trees, the fisherman’s hut, the orchid house and the house of flesh-eating plants. (yes, really)
The Beaches (and men)
Obviously, you will have to go to spend some time at Copacabana and Ipanema beach, enjoying the drinks, the waves, the sun, the sand and the many many many outrageously hot men. Nothing against the women, but in Rio, it is the men who look the best. And you can see them in action at the many outdoor gyms lining the beach promenades as well as throughout the city.
Between Copacabana and Ipanema lies Arpoador, a cliff jutting into the sea. This is the perfect place to watch the sunset.