Ah, Rio de Janeiro. City of blazing sunshine, sultry heat, and tropical mountains piled up around bays of crystal clear waters washing onto white sand beaches. Or, in my case, a city of clouds, rain, humidity, and walking. Lots and lots of walking.
Such are the problems of travelling in South America in winter, I suppose. I’d been lucky enough as far as Montevideo, but Rio was a lot further north and east. I’d planned to get there by bus, via São Paulo, but I’d already ditched that plan in favour of flights, accepting a bit of extra carbon guilt in exchange for more time to explore. Courtesy of Azul, a much nicer short-hop carrier than Ryanair, I was dropped first in Porto Alegre’s Salgado Filho International Airport, then into Rio’s city-centre Santos Dumont Airport.
A nighttime landing meant the city was nice and cool, but plans for getting to my hotel ran into a non-functional metro card dispenser, so I ended up walking instead of taking the tram. Luckily, my hotel, the Lapa Ville in the Santa Teresa neighbourhood, was as central as could be, if a bit basic in its amenities. Stage one of my Rio visit successfully achieved, I chilled out for the evening and made plans for the next few days.
My first full day in Rio was the one with most of the walking. The first item on the menu though was the Escadaria Selarón, which was just around the corner from the hotel. This lesser-known sight of Rio is a fabulously colourful tiled staircase, the work of one artist, who has expanded it over the years with contributions from around the world. I also explored it on the best morning I’d see in the city, with sun and heat to match the best Irish summer.
As Santa Teresa is so central, another short stroll took me to the Lapa Arches of the Carioca Aqueduct, and beyond them to the conical mountain of the Metropolitan Cathedral, far newer and more imposing than any of the cathedrals I’d seen so far on this trip, with its cavernous interior just about illuminated by the light pouring through great banks of stained glass. I peered in before moving on, doing a little more of a wander around the city centre and picking up both some cash and a USB charger to replace the one that went missing somewhere in Montevideo.
A brief visit to the Praça Quinze de Novembre (November is the month here, not July) waterfront was as far as that walk went though. I needed a few items from my hotel room (hat, sunglasses, extra sun cream), so I grabbed them and moved on after a short break.
I should have known better than to tempt fate. On this pleasant day, I decided to walk down to the railway that climbs to the famous Cristo Redentor statue overlooking the city, but the long walk down Rua do Catata and up Rua das Laranjeiras was all the time that was needed for the rain to start falling. And keep falling. By the time I reached the Corcovado tram station, the top of the mountain and the statue were completely lost in rain and clouds. Somewhat reluctantly, given the length of the walk, I decided I’d try again later.
I did manage to salvage something from the trip, picking up a Rio Card for the city’s public transport system, which got me back to the Cinelandia stop near Santa Teresa. Lunch at a nearby restaurant was a let-down, but I wanted to get something out of the day, so I headed to the nearby Museum of Modern Art (after figuring out how to cross the lanes of traffic in between). The Museum was pleasantly air conditioned, and some of the exhibits were interesting enough, but I kept on moving, and before long I was on my first Rio beach.
Flamengo Beach, unlike the more famous (and longer) Copacabana, faces the Baía de Guanabara instead of the Atlantic Ocean, but it shares the same white sand, and it was nice to take off my sandals and just walk in the surf. And get wet. Next day would be shorts, I decided then.
The day still had enough time to take another shot at either the Sugarloaf or the Cristo Redentor, so I had a decision to make. As it was a bit windy and I couldn’t see any cable cars crossing to the Sugarloaf, I decided that the Cristo was the way to go. I thought I might even be able to catch the sunset up there. Sadly, the rain and clouds had other plans, and by the time I made it to the tram, it had shut up shop for the evening. An offer of a taxi alternative didn’t seem that appealing, so I called it quits and headed for home base.
Day One had been a bit of a bust, but at least my hotel was just around the corner from a range of bars and clubs. So I got to sit and chill out with beer and fries at a street side table and watch Rio’s (somewhat meagre) winter crowds wander by before it was time for sleep.
Given how badly day one had gone, my second and last full day in Rio had to be a busy one. I headed straight down to the Largo do Machado metro station and up the familiar road to the Corcovado tram. This time, despite warnings that I wouldn’t be able to see anything, I bought a ticket anyway, and after twenty minutes of ascending through the cloud forests that flank the Corcovado mountain on which the Cristo sits, I was dropped at the base of the mountaintop complex and climbed up to see Rio’s most famous face.
Except that the big lad was being a bit shy, and by the time I was at his feet, his head was lost in the clouds. Everyone else was sheltering from the rain under plastic ponchos, whereas I had only an umbrella to keep the rain off my shorts, sandals, and t-shirt. Luckily, the clouds soon cleared to a round of cheers and the mountaintop became selfie central. We even got a view of the city and the bay below, though the clouds never quite cleared enough for that view to become as epic as it promised.
So that was one sight down, with one to go. I came down from my mountaintop meeting with god (sans tablets of stone but plus a couple of fridge magnets) and headed for Pao do Açucar, better known as the Sugarloaf. The metro dropped me off at the Botofago station, and I walked the rest of the way to the cable car. It’s a two-stage trip, first to the Morro da Urca and from there to the Sugarloaf itself. Not quite as tall as the Corcovado on which the Cristo stands, it offers just as good a view because it stands right at the mouth of the bay. Plus, taking the trip to the top gives you a chance to wander around the forest trails there, and to spot the marmosets begging for scraps from the tourists (you’re not supposed to feed them, but people do anyway). The best bit of it though was looking down on the planes as they approached Santos Dumont either through the mountains surrounding the city or from the mouth of the bay.
Despite the rain, it had been a productive day, and there was plenty of daylight left. I wanted to make use of it, so I looked into the Museu de Ciencias da Terra, which seemed interesting (and had dinosaurs!) but was sadly closed. So instead, I walked some more. The Ladeira do Leme climbed over a saddle between two peaks, and beyond was the Copacabana. Not as deserted as the Flamengo had been the day before, it was washed by some serious Atlantic surf, and even my shorts weren’t enough to save me from getting a bit damp.
I passed by some foot-volleyball players showing serious skill, but I didn’t want to stick around too long, as evening was finally drawing in, so I went in search of the local metro stations. There were some issues with the Rio Card again, as I needed to top it up, but before too long I was back at Cinelandia, returning to the hotel to rest my feet before another evening of beer, fries, and cocktails, with samba music providing a backdrop at the Leviano Bar. I even dropped in on the local Irish bar, where decent beer wasn’t enough to make me take part in a session of death metal karaoke.
The last day in Rio was also the last day of the trip. So I dawdled over packing and made sure everything was in order before checking out. After two days of venturing south, I turned north instead, aiming for the Sao Cristóvão stop, where I had access to the Park Quinta da Boa Vista. The plan was to visit the National Museum, but it turned out to be closed. (Something of a theme for Rio in the winter.) Thoroughly closed, as in surrounded by scaffolding and gutted on the inside. So I wandered around the park instead and said hi to the cats.
Back across the road and a short stroll away was the Maracanã Stadium. If the Centenario in Montevideo had all the history, the Maracanã was a temple to football on a gigantic scale, having hosted both the Olympics and the World Cup. Runners were circling the entire complex as I walked widdershins, and I was getting a little sunshine for the first time in a few days, so all was going well enough.
I checked my travel plans for the evening at the train station before heading back into town, getting off at Central and heading down the Av. Marechal Floriano before angling north to the Museum of Tomorrow on the waterfront. If the rest of Rio’s attractions were underpopulated, this one was packed, with a queue that only got longer. A multimedia marvel in a building that looks like a spacecraft come in to land, it was an excellent way to use up what remained of the day, as was the restaurant underneath, where I enjoyed some grilled fish and a disturbingly alcoholic caipirinha as I enjoyed the view.
That was more or less it though. One last walk down the waterfront to the hotel and grabbing my bags, then a three-stage trip to the airport. That was the plan, at least. Except that on stage two, I was seized by a moment of fear. Had I screwed up the time difference and missed my flight? Rushing wouldn’t have solved the problem, but it did make me feel a bit better, so I used up some of the last of my cash to finish the trip in a taxi to Terminal 2. Was I too late?
No. No I wasn’t. Panic over, after double-checking the departures board. My long journey across South America was at an end, and British Airways was waiting to take me away. And that is as good a place as any to end. Thanks for listening, and farewell.
(Okay, there’ll be an epilogue later. But you’ll have to wait for that.)