Rio de Janiero translates to the River of January. It is not entirely known where the name came from, but the best guess is that the Portuguese arrived at the coastline of present day Rio de Janiero and navigated into Guanaraba Bay. They believed the bay was actually a river and the month happened to be January, hence the name Rio de Janiero. Original, right?
The massive bay comes inland quite a distance, creating a port sheltered from the Atlantic swells. Large mountains rise up only a few miles from the coast which sets the backdrop for the city. Between the coast and the mountains lies the city of Rio on the west side of the bay and the city of Niteroi on the east. A large modern bridge connects the two cities at nearly seven miles long. We know the distance as we took a wrong turn coming into town and were forced to drive across this bridge each way.
Rio is the second largest city in Brazil with an estimated population of 6.5 million. Navigating through the city in our truck proved to be relatively easy due to the modern highway system that moves traffic seamlessly. We ventured into the city on Sunday expecting a lower volume of traffic, but boy were we wrong. On Sundays, many large sections of the highway are closed to vehicle traffic and opened up to bicyclists, runners, etc. and makes driving in the city a nightmare. Eventually, we found our urban camp site and relaxed for our first evening in the city.
Our first day in Rio was just for relaxing as we got used to the feel of the city. Our home for the week was a guarded parking lot between two major roads right on Flamengo Beach. After some internet time in the morning, we put on our swim suits and went to the beach. Being Monday, the beach was very quiet.
The next day, we set out to explore the Centro area on foot. Our first stop was the Rio de Janiero Cathedral. This modern looking cathedral rises to the sky as a flat topped cone shape. Although not the most beautiful cathedral we have seen, its sheer size made it worthwhile to visit.
Walking through the city we found several other churches that were incredible.
The Royal Portuguese Cabinet of Literature was our next stop in downtown. This, seemingly, hole in the wall, is easily the most impressive library we have ever seen. Located in a less than desirable are of town, the interior of the building is completely lined with books that are hundreds of years old.
Next, we walked through the busy and narrow streets of downtown and arrived at the waterfront. Significant work has been put into the waterfront, mostly in preparation for the 2016 Olympics, and these lovely areas were humming with life. Along the waterfront, we found some murals painted on old warehouses along the water front for the Olympics. A few days later, we discovered that the mural is in the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest mural ever designed by one artist. It was completed in a very short period of time of only two months. Pretty cool!
Our first major tourist destination is the world famous Christ the Redeemer. Standing at the peak of Corcovado mountain, the statue of Christ rises 100 feet above its base and overlooks the city from above. It was constructed over a period of nine years and was finished in 1931. Ever since, it has been a major tourist attraction. There are many ways to get to the top of Corcovado, but we opted for a van to take us to the top that left only a few blocks from our truck. Unfortunately, we picked the one day that wasn’t totally clear for our entire week in Rio, but the views were impressive despite the low lying haze. Tuesday morning is supposed to be the least crowded time to visit Christ the Redeemer but there were hundreds of other tourists there wielding selfie sticks, laying on the ground and just being tourists. They were equally as entertaining to watch.
Ever since our wonderful bike tour in Mexico City, we have been wanting to take another tour and found a great company offering tours in Rio. In the morning, we set out with a group including us and four Dutch folks. Of course we would run into Dutch folks riding bikes on the other side of the world. Anyhow, the tour took us along the south side of the city. The first leg of the trip took us along the most famous beach in Rio called Copacabana Beach. Perfect white sand and blue ocean waves that stretched for miles made it easy to understand why this beach is so famous. Interestingly, our tour guide explained that all of the beaches in Rio are actually man made.
The next stop on our bike tour was Praia Vermelha which translates to Red Beach. This small beach is situated between the famous Sugar Loaf mountain at the mouth of Guanaraba Bay, and another large mountain on the other side. This beach is quite small, especially compared to Copacabana, but much more quiet. Its location between the two large stones shelters it greatly and only small waves arrived at the beach. Towering overhead are the cablecars taking tourists to the top of Sugar Loaf. We will get to our trip to Sugar Loaf later in this post.
The bike tour wrapped up taking us through the Botafogo and Humaita neighborhoods, Lagoa which is a large lake that hosted rowing events for the Olympics and back to Copacabana beach. After the bike tour, we went to Copacabana beach for a few hours to work on our tans and cool off in the chilly ocean waves.
Continuing our tourism in Rio, we set out the following morning for two additional stops before our night tour that evening. The firs stop was Lage Park. This park is situated right at the base of Corcovado and Christ the Redeemer. A large French style building is situated in the middle of the park and has been featured in many American music videos by Snoop Dogg, The Blackeyed Peas and Pharrell Williams. Throughout the park are many hidden features such as caves, aquariums, bridges, etc.
After Lage Park, we hopped on a bus and headed towards Sugar Loaf. Sugar Loaf is one of the most famous landmarks in Rio. This large monolith rises nearly 1,000 feet straight up and marks the opening of the bay. To get to the top, tourists take two sets of cable cars. Curiously, the first set of cable cars were installed in the 1920s and were the third such cable cars in the world. I could go on and explain the incredible view, but we will let the photos do the work.
Throughout our trip, our nightlife in the city has been nonexistent. As we continually arrive in new cities, we never know which neighborhoods are safe and which are not. More often than not, we are gone before we even have much of a chance to find out. Rio doesn’t have a particularly great reputation, but we decided to branch out when we found a night tour offered by Strawberry Tours. The night tour took us through the Lapa District of the city which is known for its nightlife.
Before we get to our tour experiences, we thought we would add a quick note about Strawberry Tours as we really think the company’s business model is awesome. Firstly, it is truly a global company that offers tours around the world so you can go from one city to the next and receive a unique tour but know that it will be great. Next, you only pay a tip for what you thought the tour was worth. There is no established price so a tour will fit any budget. Along with price, Strawberry Tours donates 10% of tips to a charity within the city. In Rio, this is paid to help provide child care to for one of the many favelas in the city. The Rio organization has only been up and running for three months but will thrive. If you are in Rio or any other major city around the world, check them out!
Initially, we figured the tour would be mostly a tour but were a little surprised when it turned out to be more of a bar hopping tour. The first stop was an Irish Pub that had a local band playing rock music. The next stop was a bar with life Somba music. The final stop was a bar that had a huge selection of Brazil’s national liquor Cachaca (pronounced CA-SHA-SA). Cachaca is somewhat similar to rum made with sugar cane and a cheap bottle can be purchased for almost the same cost as a bottle of water. At the first two bars, we had caiprinas which are made with lime juice, sugar and cachaca. They are similar to a mojito but the liquor taste is a bit different than rum. At the final bar, we had had too much sugar and stuck with a beer instead. We stayed at this bar with our English friends until the wee hours of the night. Although it was a different experience than we had expected, it was very enjoyable and a great way to experience Rio by night.
In the morning, we were forced to get up early as we had another walking tour organized for the historical center of Rio. We started near the downtown area, made our way to the water front, back to the Lapa District we had visited the night before, and finished the tour in the Cinelandia square. Our tour guide explained a great deal about the buildings and regions of Rio as well as the important history and relationships with the Portuguese Royalty. We saw the first street of Rio and many graphic depictions of what the city looked like as it was developed into the current city. Near the Lapa District, we saw the enormous aqueduct that was used to transport water from the mountains to the city center. The Cinelandia area is named for its development as the cinema “land” of Rio with dozens of cinemas and theaters. The municipal theater inspired by French architecture dominates the square. We saw entirely too much to explain here, but found the walking tour to be a great way to visit Rio.
Following our walking tour, we sat down for some draft beer, fried shrimp, rice and french fries in the Cinelandia area. It was a great way to wrap up our visit to Rio.
Before we arrived in Rio, we were a bit nervous as its reputation isn’t exactly stellar. To take precautions, we never carried anything valuable while we were out and about and only carried the cash we needed for the day. Minimizing our risk of loss and staying in tourist areas was a great way to prevent ourselves from constantly being on edge.
Getting around Rio was a big concern for us as driving in the city is, well, let’s say, difficult on our marriage. Luckily, Rio has a great subway system that is cheap and efficient for getting around. Before we arrived, we downloaded an app for our phone that made route planning more or less idiot proof. Just enter your starting location and where you plan to go and the app will tell you what subway to get on, the direction to go, transfers between lines, if any, and transfers to buses, if necessary. We could have figured out how to get around pretty easily, but this app made us very comfortable getting around.
Where did we stay in Rio? Well, the short answer is a parking lot between two major highways. The long answer is a parking lot between two highways between Flamengo Beach and Flamengo Neighborhood. The parking lot had a fence around it, was locked at night and had security cameras, one of which was right out our back door. It would have been simple for somebody to walk in off the street but we felt very comfortable during our entire stay. That said, we slept with ear plugs every night as the road noise was too much to handle. After seven days, our camper battery was pretty much depleted but lasted a long time thanks to our solar panel. Since we were not around to make sure our solar panel didn’t disappear, we locked it using a bike lock connected to our grill guard when it was on our hood and around a tree to catch the afternoon sun. It was a nice break to be parking in one spot for a week.
Saturday morning marked the end of our visit to Rio. It was exactly a week since we had arrived and we saw the highlights of what we wanted to see. It would be possible to spend months or years in the city and not see everything. Following our week in Rio, we left in search of deserted beaches and a break from the hustle and bustle of the city. We will pick up there in our next blog post.