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Rio de Janeiro

Written on: Friday March 28th, 2008

A journal entry from: Kevin and Julie's RTW

Location: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 

Author: Julie 

Bon Dia! 

This was our last full day visiting with Mijin before she had to return to Canada. We wanted to maximise our time so we booked a city tour that would take us to all the highlights of Rio. 

Our day started with a stop at the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon. The 7.5 km circular lagoon is surrounded by some of the richest neighbourhoods in Rio including the districts of Ipanema, Leblon, Copacabana, and Botafogo. The early morning light shined on the promenade where a small legion of fit runners were taking advantage of the cool weather. The condominium overlooking this man-made lagoon was some of the most expensive in the city, affording a tranquil view in a bustling city. 

Our bus took us from the lagoon to the main street that ran along the beach of Ipanema and Copacabana. We stopped at a look-out to take a few pictures, giving us a great view of the sweeping bay of Ipanema and Copacabana further away. Looking up, we could see the condominium and apartment buildings anchored to the steep mountain side, affording the residences amazing views of the ocean below, and further up the Brazilian favelas where a quarter of Cariocas live. Unlike most places in the world where the poor of a city were given the worst real estate locations to build their shanty town, in Rio the poor had the best views of all. Of course, this was a double edge sword with most having to deal with long, steep climbs to get in and out of the haphazard communities and forced to live in unstable and unsafe homes on steep slopes prone to mudslides. Many of them are constructed from a variety of materials, ranging from bricks to garbage. The majority have electricity, but in most cases it is illegally tapped from the public grid. They are plagued by sewage, crime and hygiene problems. Although many of the most infamous are located in Rio de Janeiro, there are favelas in almost every large or even mid-sized Brazilian town. As a general rule, Brazilian cities do not recognize the existence of favelas as a legal entity. We had an opportunity earlier in the week to do a tour of the Rocinha favela (featured in the movie City of God), 1 out of almost 700 found in Rio, through our hostel, but we had decided that we didn't want to become tourists that paid to simply gawk at the poverty and misery of others. Although Rocinha is technically classified as a neighbourhood, many still refer to it as a favela. It developed from a shanty town into an urbanized slum. Today, almost all the houses in Rocinha are made from concrete and brick. Some buildings are three and four stories tall and almost all houses have basic sanitation, plumbing, and electricity. Compared to other favelas,  Rocinha has a better developed infrastructure and hundreds of businesses such as banks, drug stores, bus lines, cable television, including locally based channel TV ROC, and, at one time, a McDonalds franchise, though it has since closed. If we felt it was making a difference in the community we would have agreed, but what we understand is that the resident drug-slumlord is paid off by the tour companies to guarantee our security while we walked the favela. The money never makes it to those that needed it the most. 

As we drove along Ipanema, we could see young children and teenagers dressed in beach uniforms practicing their beach volleyball drills. The country produces some of the best players in the world and with such amazing beaches and organized coaching it was no surprise. Kevin and I were itching to get out there and play with them. It had been months since we had touched a volleyball. Maybe later? 

Passed the fort and back into our neighbourhood of Copacabana, we continued on along passed the Leme district, towards the entrance to Guanabara Bay and Sugarloaf Mountain, its name is said to refer to its resemblance to the traditional shape of concentrated refined loaf sugar. A non-descript building was the entrance to the gondola system, a glass-paneled cable car capable of holding 75 passengers, which runs the 1400-metre route from the base of Babilônia mountain, then to Urca Mountain to finally end at the top of the Pão de Açúcar mountain. The original cable car line was built in 1912. So familiar is this peak, the mere sight of it in a film is sufficient to establish the setting as Rio de Janeiro. Our ride up was pleasant, shared with a few other tourists and our tour guide. We stopped at the mid-point station on Urca Mountain to take photos and take in the views. We boarded the next cable car to the top. The top was a collection of shops, a small snack restaurant, a helipad where we could book 20 minutes sightseeing tour of the city for close to 400$, and a small forest reserve. We were rewarded with amazing views of the beaches, the city and far off in the distance Corcovado Mountain and Christ the Redeemer. The sun was shining, only a few clouds could be seen, the waves were gently crashing on the beach, and the city buzzed below our feet. We spent a half hour enjoying an ice cream as we admired the natural beauty of the city. From above we could see the many favelas cresting the top of the surrounding mountains; they really did have the best views of the city. 

Next up was Corcovado Mountain and the Christ the Redeemer statue, voted one of the "new" seven wonders of the world last year. We wound our way out if the city and into the Tijuca Forest National Park where the statue was located at the top of Corcovado Mountain. In the past, a series of staircases lead to the top of the 700-meter high Corcovado Mountain but a few yeas ago a set of escalators and elevators were added to assist the mobility-impaired and the lazy people like us. At the top was the awe-inspiring sight of the statue of Jesus with his arms opened wide, like as if he was embracing the city below. The sun was shining high in the sky, a bit to the right, behind the statue giving him a darkly-contrasting glow. The statue stands 38 metres (120 ft) tall and weighs 635 tonnes. The idea for erecting a large statue atop Corcovado was first suggested in the mid 1850s, when Catholic priest Pedro Maria Boss requested financing from Princess Isabel to build a large religious monument. Princess Isabel did not think much of the idea and it was completely dismissed in 1889, when Brazil became a Republic, with laws mandating the separation of church and state. The second proposal for a large landmark statue on the mountain was made in 1921 by the Catholic Circle of Rio. The group organised an event called Semana do Monumento (Monument Week) to attract donations and collect signatures to support the building of the statue. The donations came mostly from Brazilian Catholics. The decision was made to build the structure out of reinforced concrete (designed by Albert Caquot) instead of steel, more suitable for the cross-shaped statue. The outer layers are soapstone, chosen for its enduring qualities and ease of use. Construction took nine years, from 1922 to 1931. The monument was opened on October 12, 1931. The cost of the monument was $250,000. The statue was meant to be lit by a battery of floodlights triggered remotely by shortwave radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi, stationed 5,700 miles (9,200 km) away in Rome, but poor weather affected the signal and had to be lit by workers in Rio. 

You can't visit Rio de Janeiro without thinking about Carnaval, and this was our next stop: the Sambadrome. In 1840, the first Carnaval was celebrated with a masked ball. As years passed, adorned floats and costumed revellers became a tradition amongst the celebrants. The Sambadrome was built in 1984 and its capacity is 90,000. It consists of 700 m stretch of the Marquês de Sapucaí street converted into a permanent parade ground with bleachers built on either side for spectators. The complex includes an area located at the end of the parade route, the Praça da Apoteose (Apotheosis Square), where the bleachers are set further back from the parade area, creating a square where revellers gather as they end their parade. It is slightly un-impressive when viewed mid-day without anyone around, but during the celebration time it would be full of dancing, celebrating, cheering people almost jumping out of their seats till the early morning hours. The official Carnival parades take place just before the start of Lent. They are held for four consecutive nights, during which schools parade one after another from 8pm until the morning. The Access Group A samba schools are hosted on Saturday, Special Group on Sunday and Monday and Access Group B on Tuesday. The Special Group nights are by far the biggest attractions. The parades are televised nationally and are watched by large audiences. Each samba school has a preset amount of time (80 minutes) to parade from one end of the Sambadrome to the other with all its thousands of dancers, its drum section, and a number of floats. Each school has its own unique qualities according to its own traditions. Schools are graded by a jury, and the competition is ferocious. On Ash Wednesday, grades are gathered and one school is declared the winner. The Parade of Champions is held the following Saturday featuring the five winning samba schools in the Special Group category. It is possible for a person who is not a member of any samba school to buy a costume and arrange for a spot as a dancer in one of the parade groups. In 2008, ticket prices for normal bleacher, or Grandstands, seats in the Sambadrome on Special Group nights ranged between R$10 and R$500 (US$6.50 to US$312.50), with VIP Cabins, or Covered Boxes, seating (which includes open bar, buffet - dinner, dessert and more) and scalped tickets costing much more (starting from US$2,500.00, in the best locations). Add in the tripled prices for hotel, with a minimum 5 night booking requirement, and you've got an expensive party to attend. Inflated prices to watch star samba schools exclude many Brazilians from attending as such other parades occur in many parts of the city, turning into large bloc parties, including the much-anticipated Cordão do Bola Preta, which parades in the centre of the city. It is one of the most traditional carnavals and in 2006, it gathered 200,000 people in one day. That's a very large block party! 

Our last stop of the tour was the Cathedral of Rio de Janeiro. It is the seat of the cardinal archbishop of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It is dedicated to Saint Sebastian, the patron saint of Rio de Janeiro. The current church was built between 1964 and 1979 and replaced a series of old churches that had served as cathedrals since 1676. It is located in the centre of the city. Conical in form and with a 96 metres (315 ft) internal diameter and an overall height of 75 metres (246 ft), it has a standing-room capacity of 20,000 people. The cathedral's four rectilinear stained glass windows soar 64 metres (210 ft) from floor to ceiling. From the outside it looked like a large conical-shaped beehive with large stained glass windows. We wandered inside for a few minutes, admiring the light of the setting sun which illuminated the glass causing technicolor lights to blanket the inside. It was beautiful but we were getting tired and most of its beauty was lost to us. It was time for the tour to end. 

We were dropped off at our hostel and had one last supper with Mijin as she was leaving the next morning to return home to Ottawa. We had such a great time with her and missed her dearly when she was gone. 

We spent a couple more days in Rio de Janeiro, hanging out at the hostel and going for walks along the beach. The weather never warmed up enough to truly enjoy a day at the beach. We were getting a little tired of travelling in South America and the knowledge that soon we would be across the Pacific in New Zealand excited us.