Walking the length and breadth of Rio

  • Europe
  • Friday, 13 Dec 2013

All eyes are on Brazil, especially after last weekend’s World Cup draw. This writer walks the streets, beaches, mountains and favelas of Rio de Janeiro – and bumps into a football legend along the way.

I’D spent all day walking in the heat and humidity of Rio, and my first beer didn’t touch the sides. I was about to dispatch my second when a greying, pot-bellied man appeared next to me at the bar. I froze. He no longer looked anything like the powerful Brazilian striker who had torn defences to shreds in the 1970 World Cup, one of the stars of the greatest football team of all time. But there was little doubt who he was.

“Is that Jairzinho?” I mouthed to the barman.

He nodded with a smile.

A member of the glorious, beautiful team that lit up the World Cup like none since, Jairzinho was its unstoppable goal machine – the “Hurricane”, the only player in history to score in every round of the tournament, a feat not even Pele, his teammate, got close to.

The Escadaria Selaron, a flight of 215 mosaic steps.

And there he was – no longer looking much like a hurricane – but standing next to me at the bar. Starstruck, I blurted out the first thing that came into my head: “Hi! You’re a legend!”

“Yeah, I know that,” he replied, as if it was the most obvious thing he’d heard all day.

I managed to compose myself enough to offer him a beer (he had one, but paid for his own) and talk about the football coaching programmes he runs in the city’s favelas, but inside I was aglow. (If you’re not a football fan, this was like having a chat with Jean-Paul Sartre over a pastis in a Parisian cafe.)

I was looking forward to many things on my four-day walk across Rio de Janeiro. Thanks to its unique topography and gobsmacking natural beauty, it offers a city walk like nowhere else on earth – taking in a lake, mountains, two of the world’s most famous beaches and some of Brazil’s last remaining virgin Atlantic rainforest, not to mention colonial villages and the biggest favela in Latin America – all within the city limits. But I’d never dreamed of sharing a beer with a living legend in a scruffy little bar in the @#$* end of Copacabana.

I’d begun my walk eight hours earlier in the spot where Brazil itself had started, or at least came of age and shook off its colonial past. In 1889, at the Imperial Palace in Praca XV, the heart of old Rio, a group of army officers delivered a letter to Dom Pedro II, the Emperor of Brazil descended from Portuguese royalty, with words to the effect: “You know what, mate, I think we can manage our own country on our own from now on. Pack your bags and head back to Europe.”

A view of the Santa Teresa district.

Some of Rio’s most impressive architecture can still be found in and around Praca XV, but it has been throttled by modernity, its colonial charm obliterated by a concrete flyover, now black and decrepit, built directly over the top of it. In the morning rush hour, I got off a bus in a tunnel underneath the square with dozens of commuters, and within seconds was engulfed by thousands more pouring out the ferries from Niteroi, the satellite city across Guanabara Bay, and planes coming in to land at the nearby domestic airport almost grazed the tops of the boats in the harbour.

The only person not rushing to work in the commercial district was a homeless man standing next to an old disused fountain in the middle of the square. When I asked him about the fountain’s history he said: “It’s never worked; it’s just for tourists to come and take pictures.”

But there are no tourists around and the palace was yet to open, so instead I ducked under an arch, Arco do Teles, to a narrow cobblestone street, where, as a child, samba singer/dancer/actress Carmen Miranda lived at No 13.

The Metropolitan Cathedral.

If I were true to the spirit of megacity walks, I should have headed north from here, through the endless gritty suburbs and poor favelas that are homes to millions in the urbanised and industrial stretch of Rio. Instead, I headed south through old Rio, towards the natural playgrounds of Copacabana and Ipanema, Pao de Acucar, Corcovado, Cristo and other places that slip off the tongue like a silky bossa nova melody.

Although it was still morning, the air was already thick with the meaty, garlicky whiff of simmering feijao (black beans), the staple that would feed the army of office workers at lunch-time. And by 10am, it was soupy with humidity, too, so I headed for the cool and calm of the Metropolitan Cathedral. From the outside, it looks like an enormous upturned concrete bucket, an example of graceless 1970s architecture. But this just made the spectacular interior of ascending stained-glass windows all the more breathtaking. The effect is as awe-inspiring as the grand medieval cathedrals of Europe.

Slipping out through the back door, I felt as though I’d walked into a different city. The office workers had vanished, and the empty, ramshackle streets of Lapa, Rio’s bohemian quarter, were still asleep in the late morning.

Lapa has been the home of Brazilian artists for two centuries, but no one contributed more to the area than Chilean-born Jorge Selaron, whose one-man project, the Escadaria Selaron, a flight of 215 mosaic steps, has become a focal point of the neighbourhood. The artist covered every inch of the steps in front of his house in tiles, ceramics and mirrors – originally in the green, yellow, blue and white of the Brazilian flag, later adding tiles in other colours brought by visitors.

At the top of the steps, I turned left and headed to Santa Teresa, a sleepy hillside village of cobblestone streets, colonial houses and artists’ studios that feels cut off from the rest of the city. This was the first of several occasions on the walk when I didn’t feel I was in a big city at all.

Heading back down the hill, I got my first “wow” moment as I gazed at Botafogo beach on the edge of Guanabara Bay, with Sugarloaf mountain beyond, like a granite spaceship ready for lift-off. This is where the Portuguese fleet arrived on Jan 1, 1502, hence Rio de Janeiro (January River) – they mistook the huge bay for a river delta. Even laced with roads and buildings, it’s a jaw-dropping vista, but I tried to picture it 500 years ago, with the mountains swathed in emerald forest, the beaches ringing to nothing but the sounds of the jungle. It must have been like sailing into Eden.

Five minutes later, all notions of tropical paradise vanished as I was confronted by a mash-up of flyovers, tunnels, deafening traffic and pollution – a natural bottleneck resulting from the granite morros that shoot into the sky all over Rio. There’s no easy way to walk from Botafogo to Zona Sul, the area of Rio with all the famous bits. Until the early 20th century, Rio ended here; Copacabana was an isolated Atlantic fishing village. Once the Tunel Engenheiro Coelho Cintra opened in 1906, the Brazilian middle class started moving south, followed by the rich and famous, who turned the Copacabana Palace into one of the world’s most glamorous hotels.

I took the narrow footpath through the six-lane tunnel and saw Copacabana beach beckoning at the other end, but I opted for that cooling beer with Jairzinho rather than a swim. I made my way to the beach afterwards, exhausted but ecstatic, my head full of beer and Brazilian football, and practically danced the two miles back to my hotel, cooling my sore feet in the crashing waves.

Copacabana’s star has long since faded – it is now one of the most densely populated neighbourhoods in the world, tightly packed high-rise blocks squeezed between the mountains and the sea, beer-bellied blokes drinking their pensions away, and women with small dogs and bad facelifts. Yet the 4km arc of the beach still has an irresistible shimmer, a crescent of white sand 100m deep from the water’s edge to the famous wave motif on the black-and-white mosaic pavement.

And it’s still where Brazil shows off to the world. When Usain Bolt ran an exhibition race earlier this year, when the Rolling Stones played a free gig, and the new Pope addressed the city, they did it on this beach in front of millions.

My hotel, the Sofitel, was at the far, western end of Copacabana, in front of the neighbourhood’s tiny fishing community, a vestige of when this was an isolated hamlet rather than the most famous beach in the world.

The next morning, I walked round the corner to the city’s second most famous beach, Ipanema, which was grey and moody, the pointed peaks of the Dois Irmaos mountains looming over the far end of the beach, shrouded in heavy cloud.

I went back with friends a few days later, when the sun was out, and Ipanema was at its sultry best. Hundreds of people were meditating on the rocks, legs crossed, eyes closed. On the pavement nearby, a busker was playing the saxophone, his hat containing a not inconsiderable amount of cash. This might sound like an everyday scene for a hip city beach, but when I lived in Brazil 20 years ago, people in Rio seemed almost scared to blink lest their bags were snatched from their hands; and the busker’s hat would have been nicked by hoodlums, along with his sax.

It’s still not the safest city in the world – I was warned to stay away from Copacabana and Santa Teresa at night – but, boosted by the booming economy and double feel-good factor of hosting the World Cup Finals and the Olympics – Rio feels a far happier, more confident place.

I still had half the city to walk, so I tore myself away from watching locals playing the incredibly skilful hybrid of footvolley on Ipanema, and headed down Rua Vinicius de Moraes, named after the lyricist and bossa nova composer. On the left is Garota de Ipanema (the Girl from Ipanema), the bar where de Moraes wrote the classic song with Tom Jobim in 1962. Despite changing its name (it used to be called Bar Veloso) and being just one block back from the beach, the bar still attracts locals as well as visitors, and does a great steak (go for the picanha, rump cap: it’s the most expensive thing on the menu – £24/RM127 – but will serve three people).

At the end of the street is the Lagoa, or Lake, which will host the rowing in the 2016 Olympics. It is a beautiful lake, ringed with imposing black mountains. From the tallest, 710m Corcovado, straight ahead of me the statue of Christ the Redeemer surveyed the city.

After a mile, I turned west through the pleasant but uneventful middle-class suburbs of Leblon and Gavea. It was a quiet, easy day’s stroll which I cut short to plan the most challenging section of this walk, through Rocinha, one of the biggest favelas in Latin America. Many of the city’s favelas have been “pacified” in recent years and small companies have sprung up offering tours. But when I rang a couple to ask if they had a guide for the long and winding road through Rocinha, they reacted as if I was slightly mad. So I asked for help at the community centre on the main road just outside the favela. There Dilmar Borges called her grandson Rogerio, who came to meet me and agreed to be my guide the following day.

So, on day three, I started at sea level and walked back up to where I’d stopped the day before. “A favela is like a mountain: you need to climb it from the bottom,” said Rogerio.

At first, it felt like any other working-class Brazilian street, full of nail bars and mobile phone shops, banks and restaurants.

But as soon as we hit the dank alleyways off the main drag, the place felt Dickensian. Every thoroughfare was overhung with a black plastic spaghetti of hundreds of Internet, telephone and electricity cables. This is how at least 12 million Brazilians live, most in far poorer favelas than Rocinha.

It felt otherworldly, but also welcoming and completely safe. This was partly thanks to Rogerio, who seemed to know everyone we met on the long, slow climb to the top of the favela. He proudly showed me the new, sadly under-used, ecological park, and a pristine clay tennis court funded, with little fanfare, by Novak Djokovic.

At the top of the morro, we had a drink at Laje Carlinhos (www.terracetourist.com), a friendly bar on the roof of a small house, with a sweeping view of the whole favela – a mountain dotted with tens of thousands of tiny houses made of cheap red bricks. Beyond lay the Atlantic, to the right was Pedra da Gavea, the imposing mountain I was planning to climb the following day. Up a floor, from another improvised rooftop, we looked in the opposite direction to where the Tijuca rainforest climbs up the hillside in a carpet of dark velvety green.

I said farewell to Rogerio at the summit of Rocinha, and in less than five minutes I was walking back down through Alto Gavea, Rio’s most salubrious suburb. Within touching distance of the favela is the Escola Americana, the most expensive school in town, landscaped into the hillside. Standing on top of a favela full of people living in poverty and looking down on a school that charges day fees of over £2,000 (RM10,550) a month, it felt like a mad world, but my God, what a beautiful one.

On the final day of my walk, I climbed another mountain, but unlike Rocinha, where every crevasse is crammed with humanity, the 844m Pedra da Gavea, about 3km (two miles) to the west, is stark, empty and covered in some of Brazil’s last remaining Atlantic rainforest, inside the Tijuca national park. I was accompanied by Rob, a Scottish friend who has lived in Rio for nearly 20 years. He misses the Highlands but having mountains like this on your doorstep – which you can climb in the morning and then be back down on the beach in the afternoon – is ample compensation.

There are dozens of hiking trails in Rio but only in recent years, as a result of greater affluence and expanding horizons, have locals really started taking advantage of them. The ranger at the start of the trail told us, with some pride, that 200 people had come through already that day. Perhaps because it’s so close to the city, many were woefully unprepared for the hike, wearing cheap trainers and even flip-flops. I was certainly surprised at the level of fitness required to tackle the vertical rock faces, and wouldn’t have made the top without Rob there to chivvy me along.

Luckily, the mountain was covered in mist for much of the assent, protecting us from the sun. But as we reached the summit, the clouds lifted, revealing the city below bathed in sunlight.

To the west was the modern suburb of Barra da Tijuca, Rio’s future, full of shopping malls and Florida-style condos – and home to many of the venues for the 2016 Olympics – fringed with sand and sparkling blue sea. To the east, I looked back to the city I’d spent the last four days walking across: the white apartment blocks and favelas seemed tiny and insignificant next to the vast sweep of Copacabana, the ocean and the towering mountains swathed in tropical rainforest.

There might be a megacity of 13 million people down there but, from up here at least, it seems that man, despite his best efforts, has barely made a dent in this incredible landscape. — Guardian News & Media

> The trip was provided by British Airways Holidays.

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