As one of the most popular destinations in the world, Rio is well traveled, well-studied and thoroughly dissected by writers and travel professionals alike. Most tourists, however, aside from visiting the world-famous city sites, stick to three Zona Sul ocean-side neighborhoods: Leme, Copacabana, and Ipanema. That’s too bad, because Rio is incredibly diverse, and since you’ve come all the way down here (it takes longer to fly from NYC to Rio, for example, than to most Western European cities) you might be interested in doing something else.
So this series is not going to focus on Corcovado, Sugarloaf or the beaches of Copa and Ipa. Just like there is more to New York than Times Square and Central Park, there is also more to Rio than the beaches and Cristo Redentor. Instead, we’ll talk about something else, something that the first-time travelers never get a chance or the time to get to.
What could that be? Santa Teresa for example. It’s an elevated district on top of the hill that affords magnificent views of the city. While it’s technically still in Zona Sul, Santa Teresa is very different from your typical Zona Sul glamor: it’s charming and bohemian if a bit rundown. Enjoy some Art Deco architecture, visit the Parque das Ruinas for great views and photo shoots (make sure it’s open first though; they tend to close it sometimes without notice). Do not stay in Santa Teresa for the duration of your trip. There are a few cheap and not-so-cheap B&Bs there that falsely advertise close proximity to the beaches and everything. This proximity is anything but close. In fact, the neighborhood is quite removed from everywhere you want to go to in Rio and it does get boring after a few hours.
Take a ferry to Niteroi, former capital of the state. Please, ferry, not bus! It’s cheap, and your trip will double as a wonderful cruise of Guanaraba Bay. Visit the famous art museum built by Niemeyer (it’s shaped like a flying saucer) for the unique architecture and spectacular views of the bay (I thought that the actual art collection was kind of lacking). Take a swim at one of the Niteroi’s calm beaches if you don’t come on the weekend when they are full (swimming in Rio proper is not safe due to a very strong current). Then have a late lunch at one of the Niteroi’s restaurants by the time you get hungry.
Go to the Leblon Beach, if only for a breathtaking view of the ocean on one side and the mountain-sloped favela Vidigal on the other. In 1980, these million-dollar ocean views from Vidigal prompted some government-backed developers to try and evict the favelados in order to build gated communities with luxury villas on the slopes of Morro Dois Irmãos. The plan drew understandable protests from the residents that, however, hadn’t gone too well until the late Pope John Paul II who visited Rio at the time chipped in. The Pope strongly advocated on behalf of the favelados, and the developers’ move was boxed. In any place but Rio that would’ve meant the end of the story, but for Rio one twist is never enough.
After saying good-bye to the Pope, rich Rio folks got upset. Why should the poor have all the fun, they decided, and began doing what the poor had done before them—squatting. They grabbed the land on the slopes of Morro Dois Irmãos and started building their mansions complete with luxurious pools and helipads right under, and sometimes above, the favela. Thus, if you look at the slopes of Morro Dois Irmãos from down below, you will see this amazing pattern of slums and mansions. Today, some of these luxurious houses are available for short-term rent if you’re willing to pay a few thousand dollars a week. The ads understandably omit the slums proximity—to avoid upsetting visiting gringos, perhaps. Oh, well…
In the pic above, you can see the tall building to the right of the favela. Sheraton Rio Hotel & Resort is a Category 5 SPG hotel that costs 12-16,000 SPG points per night. I have never stayed at this hotel, but most of the reviews I’ve come across are not very favorable.
Photo credits: Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Niterói by Charlie Phillips / Foter.com / CC BY; Christ the Redeemer by Artyominc / Foter.com / CC BY-SA; the Sheraton next to Favela Vidigal by Andy Shuman.