Tourist Days in Rio

Despite having 2 weeks here, I crammed most of the tourist experiences all into three days:
1) Mountain Day, 2) Exploring the City Day, and 3) Museum Day.

This worked for me though; I was still able to see what I wanted to see and have time for the World Cup days. And with different activity levels and companions for each, I ended up with a nice variety of experiences.

1) Mountain Day was the action-packed choice to do Christ the Redeemer and Sugarloaf in the same day. If you ever feel like you need to offset the unhealthy lifestyle of excessive beer drinking and late-night Brazilian meat meals, hiking Corcovado is definitely one way to do that. One intense way.

The hike up Corcovado to Christ the Redeemer was entirely vertical. It went from stairmaster level to pretty much crawling, and at one point we were just using a chain to climb up a solid rock. But it was so worth it. Seeing Christ the Redeemer is an experience in itself, but hiking up to the top made it so much more rewarding (not to brag, but we did this two and a half hour hike in an hour and 5 minutes, we were all very proud). We were lucky to pick a clear morning, so the view from the top was far reaching and beautiful, and the statute itself is impressive. It’s a bit overrun with people but for good reason; it’s definitely worth the visit. And if you feel inspired, the hike up is worth it too. Despite not wanting to hike it and being tricked into it by me and Steph (sorry I’m not sorry guys), our hiking companions Rich and Adam also agreed that this was the highlight of the day.

Sugarloaf on the otherhand was a tourist mess of lines after lines. We kept going thinking this would be worth it too, and then we got to the top and all we saw was cloud all around us. The only cloud in the sky decided it was going to get stuck at the summit at the moment we were on our way up. Once in a while there was enough of a clearing to see some of the view, I tried to get some pictures, but most of the time it was just cloud. If you removed yourself from the mindset that this was supposed to be the best view of Rio, exploring the jungle in cloud cover was kind of cool; it led to some eerie imagery. But really we were just disappointed (and starving after our hike) so Sugarloaf was fine but didn’t reach the same level of worthy tourist attraction that Christ the Redeemer did.

2) Exploring the city day was a ton of walking. First we explored Centro. We started at the Uruguaiana market, where it was just a mass of stalls selling all the same shit – from knock-off World Cup jerseys to old cell phones – except for the one thing we went looking for: a particular straw hat. Sorry we never found it Rob. Then we walked down to lunch at Confeitaria Colombo. I can see why this place was highly recommended; it was so beautiful inside with its ironwork, mirrors and intricately tiled floor. I think we probably should have skipped the lunch food and just gone straight for dessert but at this point we were happy to just get sandwiches and salads. Next time, desserts.

Then we walked down Av. Rio Branco and saw what looked like the historic core, with the Theatro Municipal, Museu Nacional de Belas Artes and Fundação Biblioteca Nacional. It’s always interesting to see historic architecture in the middle of a metropolitan area. Buildings looking so classic and stately seem like they should be celebrated alone on a plaza instead of surrounded by nondescript office buildings. As cities grow though, these new buildings get built around the old ones. At least they have been saved instead of demolished for the new towers.

After Centro we walked over to Santa Theresa and the Escadaria Selaron. This beautifully colorful staircase is the work of artist Jorge Selaron, and it was a constantly evolving work from the start in 1990 to his death in 2013. Walking up the 250 steps felt like you were inside an art piece; once you got past the bottom at least. I’ve realized I don’t have the patience for tourists who all line up to take the same picture. I understand that a picture with the title of the steps in the tiles is a great keepsake, but pictures further up are beautiful too. So I blew past this crowd at the bottom to enjoy the steps at my own pace. The staircase really is beautiful and I could have spent hours looking at each of the hand-painted tiles. We had briefly visited this at night and I would have liked to spend more time there on a more active night. It seems to be a place where people hang out and enjoy some beverages, just like any other bar or park.

One thing we noticed while on our way to and walking around Centro was how many people kept telling Rob to put his phone away. On the subway and on the street, people were very concerned for our bags and our phones. Coming from San Francisco where I’ve had more phones stolen than I would like to admit, it didn’t seem like downtown Rio was any worse than anywhere else, but the locals sure do like to warn you. I suppose I prefer that they warn you instead of stealing it, so I appreciate the gesture.

3) Museum day was my alone tourist day in Rio. I set out early and saw three museums all in one rainy day. I started with the Museu De Arte Do Rio. This was probably my favorite one. The building is a combination of two buildings: modern and historic. Its architecture has been recognized with awards, so I was familiar with it before I even got there. It is an interesting solution to join the two buildings through a new roof structure and a hanging walkway, but I think it works. Inside, the museum focuses on local artists and collections about Brazil and specifically Rio. Each floor had a different exhibit or two, and they were all very different – from the top floor exhibit on favelas that was especially informative to the bottom floor graffiti that ran rampant over the walls while classic rock played and hammocks swayed in the windows. This museum was my friend’s recommendation and I will pass it along to anyone else who visits Rio.

My other two museums were the Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro (MAM, the modern art museum) and Museu Nacional de Belas Artes (the fine arts museum). MAM was a disappointment. Despite being in an interesting building, they didn’t warn me when I entered that the entire top floor was closed. It was just an exhibit on food in Rio, which I would not have bothered to see.

So I went to the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes (which happens to be free right now due to the museum’s 75th anniversary) and was pleasantly surprised. Even though they were installing new exhibits so it wasn’t entirely open, at least when I walked in they told me exactly what they had on display that day. MAM take note. The 19th century art is what it is, I’ve never been a fan of classic portraiture, and the sculptures all seemed to be “Anonymous based on so and so,” but the modern art was fantastic. I found a new artist whose work I loved and need to look up, Sergio Fingermann, and a sculpture by Franz Weissman that I really wish I could own; I was fascinated by it. This made me feel better about the flop of MAM.

So in three days I saw lots of tourist attractions. Each day was awesome in its own way, from outdoor activities and views to the city to art and culture. If I had to pick highlights: Christ the Redeemer, Escadario Selaron and Museu De Art Do Rio would be my recommendations.


São Paulo

I left São Paulo with conflicting feelings: three days absolutely flew by, but I also felt like it was enough time to get the city. It is huge, yes, but there doesn’t seem to be too much to see from a tourist perspective. I feel like I did everything I wanted to, and on top of city sights I was able to just enjoy being there for the World Cup and in the Vila Madalena neighborhood.

Monday morning (6/23) I got an early start and did a solo walking tour through Centro SP, thanks to the guidance of Lonely Planet. Centro is a bit nuts – it reminded me a lot of Taksim in Istanbul. There is some historic architecture scattered around, but it is surrounded by nondescript towers, leaving an impression that was just ok. There are pedestrian-only streets running throughout Centro, and some that you’d swear were pedestrian-only until a car almost hits you, lined by what used to be beautiful smaller buildings that have had their first floors converted into run-of-the-mill shops. People are everywhere, and right now there are people hawking Brazil paraphernalia every step you take.

What I found to be more interesting than the physical make-up of the city was observing the buzz of the city. I admit, I’m usually the pedestrian with headphones in controlling my own soundtrack as I walk around. I commuted this way on the Metro but took out the headphones once I got into Centro and just listened to the soundtrack of the city. It was fascinating to me. Hearing the local language, music, traffic, and occasional soccer horn set the scene. I was aware of this as I was walking around, and made a mental note to recommend others also ditch the headphones and let in the sounds of the city.

Monday afternoon was a completely different scene. After lunch in Vila Madalena watching the Chile/Netherlands game, and a quick wander through the Beco de Batman (the Bat Cave) street (more vibrant street art), me and a couple new friends from the hostel got ready to go into Centro again to the FIFA Fanfest for the Brazil vs. Cameroon game.

We were too late. The Fanfest was already full to capacity, so we walked half a block up and got a table on a side street that had a small TV outside. But what more do you need really than a street full of soccer fans, a TV, and access to Brahma (the beer of choice). It was so fun to watch with both locals and visitors – the Chileans that were still there from their afternoon game were definitely the most vocal but they were also supporting Brazil. Everyone was singing and chanting and just so happy to watch Brazil win.The Chile cheer has become a favorite just because it’s so addictive to yell: “Chi Chi Chi! Le Le Le! Viva Chile!” But this was nothing compared to the scene in Vila Madalena.

We got back on the Metro and, after picking up some R$4 beers on the way, joined the street party on Rua Aspicuelta. Street party doesn’t even begin to do this scene justice. Block after block was entirely packed with people. If the bars were open we didn’t even know it; people had full bars set up in the trunks of their cars or in carts in the middle of the street. We navigated through a sea of people making friends on the way. “Making friends.” Most of the time this consisted of Brazilians asking us to kiss them. Sometimes they didn’t even ask but just went for it. I don’t even know how to describe this night other than hilarity and insanity. The Brazilians sure do know how to celebrate a win. Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures, it wasn’t the kind of place you want to bring any electronics. We went equipped with a little cash and nothing else.

Tuesday (6/24) was a little quieter. I took the majority of the day to do some more exploring in a different are of Sao Paulo. Thanks to a recommendation, I went to the Itaú Cultural in Bela Vista to see an exhibit on Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. Having an architecture background, this was right up my alley. (And being a backpacker, the free admission was also perfect.) It was a very interesting exhibit with his drawings, some models, and a documentary about his work. I was especially fascinated to see his drawings. Having been a part of producing concept design books for my job, I was captivated to see how he put his drawings together. Back in the days before computers too. This was my nerdy moment of SP.

From there, I walked down to the Ibirapuera Park. This beautiful park was a nice escape from the bustle of the city. I sat under a large tree, facing a building that resembled a modernist painting, reading and enjoying the warm weather. I stopped by the Modern Art Museum (picked up a little Brazil notebook in the gift shop that has already been so useful for addresses, directions, and general notes), and wandered through the park. I stumbled onto a little lunch spot where I had a local snack (it was basically an empanada, just a Brazilian version) and watched Uruguay beat Italy (seriously the World Cup is on everywhere) before wandering back out and home. It was lovely.

I had started out my day thinking I’d try to make it to a museum, maybe the contemporary art museum or the soccer museum. I’m happy I didn’t go that route. Not only did I really enjoy my wandering, but it further proved that cities everywhere have a lot to offer without having to cost a fortune. Since I’m still so early in my trip I’m obviously budget conscious, and I had a terrific day full of culture and nature without spending anything. If this keeps up then I’ll feel a lot better about the splurge moments (thinking ahead to Rio now).

Tuesday night was a much more tame street party, just within one block this time, and some fun chilling in the hostel. Then it was up early and off to the airport.

My impression of São Paulo is positive, but not raving. Vila Madalena is very fun, with the rest of the city seeming large but not exactly packed with a lot of attractions. The excellent Metro (R$3 per ride) makes it very manageable to get around; I was definitely impressed by the public transportation system. The Viva Design Hostel was also a highlight – new, clean, friendly, and full of other travelers, solo and in groups ranging from 23 to 38, from Australia to Chile to Holland. I even made plans with a hostelmate to go to Brasilia and Salvador together after the World Cup is over.

I would call this first stop a great success. It was what I was hoping I would find on this trip: great people, interesting places, a mixture of alone time and group fun, and the ability to navigate a new, big city where I don’t speak the language.