Is Rio de Janeiro Ready for the World? Part I: How Safe is Rio & What To Do in Rio

Rio de Janeiro is gearing up to host a monumental international doubleheader: the FIFA World Cup 2014 and the 2016 Olympics. You can’t be in Rio without hearing about what’s coming to Rio. The city is used to international attention (over 1.5 million foreign tourists visit each year, Carnival alone generates upwards of 850 million USD). But with this spotlight comes added heat. The next couple of years mark Brazil and Rio’s coming out party as a young world power and the city’s getting gussied up like its homecoming and prom rolled into one.

So, is Rio ready?

This is a complex and highly debated question. The New York Times ranked Rio the #1 place to go in 2013 while many Cariocas (Rio locals) and the Huff Post ask if Brazil is preparing for the World Cup and Olympics at the expense of its people. As travelers (i.e. admitted outsiders with just a few weeks to take it all in) our impression stemmed from four pillars: safety, culture, transportation, and, of course, FOOD.

We’ll start with two big questions: how safe is Rio de Janeiro and what to do in Rio de Janeiro.

Jorge Selarón updated the World Cup mural at the foot of his famed Escadaria Selarón just months before his infamously unsolved murder

Just before his death, Jorge Selarón painted a Brazil World Cup mural at the foot of his famed Escadaria Selarón

Safety | How safe is Rio?

There are a lot of horror stories about crime in Rio de Janeiro. We were prepared for the worst and half expecting a visible City of God shadow of desperation and violence over the city. That image couldn’t appear more outdated.

We felt as safe in Rio as anywhere we’ve traveled.

We were definitely alert upon arrival, but we also visited favelas (in a group, in daylight), left our stuff unattended on the beach, stayed out late in non-tourist neighbourhoods, walked home in the dark, and hailed (registered) taxis whenever we wanted. Sure a person COULD get themselves into all kinds of trouble in Rio, but risk isn’t higher than anywhere else.

A lot of Rio’s danger stigma comes from the violent drug trade that dominated a few dozen of the city’s nearly 750 favelas. In recent years local police and Brazil’s federal government have been preparing Rio for the upcoming World Cup and Olympic Games — and, more importantly, life in the 21st century. The government has pacified 33 of Rio’s most notoriously dangerous favelas. The pacification program is a fascinating two-step blitz to vanquish drug lords and safely establish civil services like schools, clinics, and garbage service.

We visited Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro’s largest favela with a veteran guide (more below) and felt totally safe sitting on a curb next to locals in their bustling, functioning, safe neighbourhood.

Ice cream break | Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Ice cream break | Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

A week later, a German tourist was shot in Rocinha while allegedly photographing a gun-toting drug dealer. It was a really unfortunate incident but is more reflective of the #1 travel safety rule (don’t take pictures of gun-toting drug dealers) than the state of traveler safety in Rio. Without roads for emergency responders to reach the scene, Rochina residents carried the 25-year-old victim to the Pacifying Police station where he was taken to hospital.We think that group reaction speaks louder than the lone shooter.

In 7 million person city with a history of wild economic disparity and institutional violence, you can’t expect things to prefect just in time for the big show.

Culture | What to do in Rio

Rio is a major tourist destination for a reason. These are some of our favourite Rio de Janeiro activities:

Cristo Redentor

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You can’t picture Rio without Christ the Redeemer. We skipped the cog train and jumped in a 15 person tourist van to save time and reais. Either way, the ride up takes you through the really beautiful Tijuca National Forest which covers most of Corcovado mountain. If we did it again, we’d take the 2.5hr hike up the 2,326 ft mountain.

Cristo has a lot of homies on the weekends, and a midweek visit is probably a wise idea.

Pão de Açúcar

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Sugar Loaf Mountain is one of the best places to take in Rio’s landscapes in all their uncanny mountainous/beachy/urban glory. A glass-walled cable car – or bondinho - crammed with 65 passengers runs along a 1400-metre route between the lower peak of Morro da Urca up to Pão de Açúcar every 20 minutes. The original cable car was built in 1912 and then rebuilt in 1972/1973 and again in 2008.

The sights are spectacular. Heading to the top an hour before sunset to grab a beer and jockey for a good vantage point served us well.

Lapa — Arcos da Lapa & Escadaria Selaron

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Lapa is home to the Lapa Arches, the Stairs of Selaron and Rio’s hottest friday night street party. Lapa’s 42 arches were built in 1723 to connect the Santa Teresa and Morro de Santo Antonio neighbourhoods. At the National Historical Museum it’s a trip to see the Arcos of Lapa stand intact as the rest of Rio’s landscaped changes over time.

Around the corner, Escadario Selaron is the life’s work of the infamous Jorge Selarón. In 1990, Selarón began decorating the public staircase beside his house. He used porcelain, tiles, glass, and whatever he could get his hands on, and travelers began bringing materials to Rio for him to use. He worked and worked until every square inch of the 215 step staircase reflected his twisted imagination. He declared that the steps wouldn’t be complete until his death. It was an ominous prediction, Selarón was found dead on his masterpiece this February. His death remains a mystery but his legacy lives on in one of the largest public art displays in the world.

Lapa is where Rio gets down after dark. We saw a show at the very cool Circo Voador, but had an even better time at the late night party that fills every corner of Lapa’s streets each Friday night. Street jam sessions and fist fights are equally likely to spring up. Be prepared to move as the situation dictates.

Santa Teresa

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Street art and scenesters | Santa Teresa, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Santa Teresa is the adorable neighbourhood atop Santa Teresa hill (this post could have been called “tourist attractions on a hill in Rio”). It’s famous for its winding (confusing) cobble stoned streets and counterculture history (friends told us that it’s the only neighbourhood in Rio with 16 exits — the kind of real estate stats one considers when living life on the lam). In the late 19th century, Santa Teresa was an upperclass neighborhood and the beautifully crumbling houses and mansions are a living testament to Rio’s wealth in the period.

Beginning in 1877, Santa Teresa was connected to the rest of Rio by its iconic yellow Bonde tram line that ran across the top of the Lapa arches and up the hill. In 2011 a horrific accident left five dead and Bonde service suspended indefinitely.

We spent hours getting lost in the beautiful neighbourhood, browsing galleries, and hanging out with strangers on the sunny curb waiting for a table at the highly recommended Bar do Mineiro. At night, Santa Teresa is a hotspot with live music on the streets and Cariocas and tourists sharing beers on every corner.

Santa Teresa wants its

Santa Teresa wants its Bonde back

Visit a Favela

Do it. It’s not dangerous, it’s not invasive and voyeristic. It’s a mutually enriching experience and a viable part of the modern favela economy. Favela Tour founder Marcelo Armstrong took us to two favelas. The first, Vila Canoas, near where he grew up is considered small with only a few thousand residents. Vila Canoas has no streets and we walked narrow staircases between narrow homes, both built by their residents. Marcelo explained that a favela is a “place that don’t exist on a map”. Historically they are neighbourhoods built, by, for, and maintained by the people who inhabit them. For a long time Rio officials turned a blind eye and provided zero resources to these neighbourhoods. In the past few years the government has brought in basic services like sewage and power, but a culture of self-perseverance is still visibly strong in Vila Canoas.

Vila Canoas residents created their own street numbers system, long before the government brought electricity

Vila Canoas residents created their own street numbers system, long before the government brought electricity

After walking through the residential allies, we visited Para Ti, a school that Favela Tours helps fund. Students learn basic academic lessons, computer skills on donated machines, and also create handcrafts that are sold to raise money for themselves and the school. It’s the only place on the tour that tourists get a green flag to photograph people.

Between classes at Para Ti | Vila Canoas, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Between classes at Para Ti | Vila Canoas, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Next, we drove to Rocinha, the largest and one of the most developed favelas in Rio de Janeiro. Its main street looked really similar to several bustling commerce in poorer parts of Peru. Marcelo took us to the back deck of a friend’s auto shop for a stunning view out across the neighbourhood and to the beach. Even with everything to take in, we couldn’t help noticing that nearly every home had a satellite dish. Access used to be provided by the local drug lord, now residents pay for their subscriptions–watching copious TV consumption amounts to patriotism in Brazil.

The heart of Rocinha | Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The heart of Rocinha | Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

A Praia

With over fifty miles of beaches, Rio de Janeiro just might be the world’s most famous beach town. If Rio’s tourist attractions are on the hilltops, Rio’s people are on the beach. Age, race, background and body type, nothing matters; the beach is Rio’s great equalizer (tourists are welcome too). Most middle class Cariocas would never dream of entering a favela, but at the beach everyone lays out next to everyone else, and no one wears anything more than his neighbour.

At the Copa, Copacabana | Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

At the Copa, Copacabana | Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Rio has some crazy swells and some days are easier to swim than others. But the beach is always super-active. People play soccer, volley ball, paddle ball (our favourite) and combinations of the three from sun-up till long after sunset.

Tanning and paddle ball, both taken very seriously

Tanning and paddle ball, both taken very seriously

And they never have to leave. From bikinis and sarongs to chairs and umbrellas to fresh coconuts and fresh shaken caipirinhas everything comes to you. If you want a break from the sand, you can head up to the beach bars that straddle the side

We bounced between our home base Copacabana beach and Ipanema beach. Copacabana is wide with plenty of space to chill and play while Ipanema is narrower and more of a scene (Ipanema is famously tribal: Posto 9 is the trendy spot, Posto 8 is the gay praia). At sunset, it’s all about Arpoador Beach, the west-facing beach nestled between Copacabana and Ipanema.

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Check back for our next post on getting around and what to eat in Rio de Janeiro.

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