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Brazil: Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Captivating vistas; intriguing favelas
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief
Blessed with the most stunning natural setting, Rio de Janeiro is a city that is as famous for its beauty as it is for its poverty. Stretching up into the mountains that hug glistening Guanabara Bay are the city’s vast, and often misunderstood, shanty towns known as favelas. From beautiful vistas and iconic locations, to some of the communities that have helped make this city the melting pot that it is, you are sure to find Rio a captivating and complex place that can steal your heart forever.
I was leading a group of 19 comprising of 5 stags and 7 couples for a trip in southern America. Since we were coming from different locations, Rio was our meeting point. Our trip would commence in Rio and end in Lima, Peru. The 15 days in between would be spent exploring Quito and Galapagos Islands in Ecuador; Cusco, Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca in Peru.
South America is a long way from India. I reached Rio from my hometown Pune via Abu Dhabi and Sao Paulo spending almost 30 hours from door to door. By the time I reached Rio, it was 9 PM. For the two nights that we would be there, we were booked at Marriott Hotel in Copacabana - one of the finest beach locations to hang around. Very tired from the long journey, I quickly called it a day... rest assured that other members of the group would already be there.
For the trip, I availed the services of Peak DMC. They are purely a business to business company with offices in many countries. They don't deal directly with customers. Since I am associated with the travel industry, they were more than happy to be of help. All in all, I found their planning and level of service quite professional. At all destinations, the drivers and the local guides were good and knowledgeable.
Just across the road was the beach and Copacabana's famous black and white sidewalk. Thanks to my biological clock and the time difference between India and Brazil, I woke up pretty early. The beach was inviting me for a walk. And I did so for the next hour as the sun was coming up.
The beach and the sidewalk is quite popular with joggers as was with beach volleyball players. Since Summer Olympics 2016 was due in a couple of months, the city was busy preparing itself to welcome the huge influx of people. At the time of my visit, they city was under financial pressure with the mayor announcing some sanctions. The act didn't affect us though. Hopefully, by the time you get to read this article, the Olympics would be long over. I wish the organisers well.
As scheduled, the bus and the guide was at the hotel doors at 9 AM. Since we would be departing Rio early next morning, we only had a day on hand. Given the limited time, we restricted ourselves to explore Rio's 3 major attractions... Corcovado Peak, a favela and Sugarloaf Mountain.
Situated within the Tijuca Forest National Park and standing 700 metres high, the Corcovado Mountain towers over the vibrant city of Rio de Janeiro. Originally, the mountain was called Pinaculo da Tentacao, which translates to ‘Pinnacle of Temptation’. This has Biblical references and was chosen by the Portuguese settlers of centuries ago. Later, it was renamed Corcovado, which refers to its ‘hunchback’ shape.
This mountain is notable, not only for its natural beauty and prime positioning, but also because it is the foothold of the globally recognised statue called Christ The Redeemer. This statue is 100 feet high and depicts Jesus Christ standing over the city of Rio de Janeiro with his arms outstretched.
Roads originally built for the railroad in 1884 became a fundamental part of providing transport to the builders of the statue. Today, Christ The Redeemer continues to be one of Brazil’s primary tourist attractions and these roads are still being used to transport visitors up and down the Corcovado Mountain. Travellers are also transported via electrically-powered trains, which carry about 360 people up and down the mountain every hour. However, we opted for the bus ride up. All private vehicles park at a designated location. From here, park vehicles ferry visitors up and down.
Once at the top, there is a small souvenir shop as well as a chapel that can accommodate more than 100 people. The views of Rio de Janeiro, the surrounding mountains, the beaches, the ocean and the forests are awe-inspiring. The more active visitor may prefer to climb to the statue at the top of the Corcovado Mountain. It is important to note, though, that the more than 50 routes are only suitable for avid climbers, and do not substitute as hiking trails. They are challenging, and can be very dangerous to those not accustomed to climbing.
Christ The Redeemer was the brain child of Carlos Oswaldo in 1921. Initially, the figure was drawn carrying a cross. However, the engineer (Heitor da Silva Costa) and sculptor (Paul Landowski from Poland) changed the design to omit the cross. The statue was sculpted in France. It is made from soapstone, as this is durable and resistant to harmful damage from the elements. Sculpting took five years, after which construction began, which added another five years to the project. The statue was finally inaugurated in October 1931, and is owned by the Catholic Church.
We next drove to visit a favela. This tour of Rio would give us a unique insider's view into the real Rio. Officially and according to 2010 census, Rio has 763 shanty towns called favelas. They are home to almost 1.4 million people, or 22% of the city's population. Santa Marta favela is one of them. This favela was made famous in Michael Jackson's 'They Don't Care About Us' music video. We were taken around the favela by one of the favela residents who doubles up as a tour guide. Without a local guide it's almost impossible to find the way in or out. But more important, when a local is accompanying, you are welcome by the residents.
In 2008, Santa Marta was the first favela in Rio to be "pacified" under a state programme to expel its drug gangs by installing a police base and initiating social change projects. Since then, another 34 favelas have been pacified. Santa Marta is held up as the model and has become a stop-off for visiting celebrities - Madonna, Beyonce and Alicia Keys included.
They come to see the effects of pacification: creches, new houses, concrete steps instead of treacherous muddy tracks, and a free tram that glides up at a 45% angle to help its 6,500 or so residents get up and down what is essentially a 1,000 metre mountain covered in rough brick, breezeblock and even wooden houses, just below the Christ The Redeemer statue.
Next on plan was the Sugarloaf Mountain.
It's a peak situated at the mouth of Guanabara Bay on a peninsula that sticks out into the Atlantic Ocean. Rising 396 meters above the harbor. The name ‘Sugarloaf’ was coined in the 16th century by the Portuguese during the heyday of sugar cane trade in Brazil. According to historian Vieira Fazenda, blocks of sugar were placed in conical molds made of clay to be transported on ships. The shape given by these molds was similar to the peak, hence the name.
The mountain is only one of several monolithic granite and quartz mountains that rise straight from the water's edge around Rio de Janeiro. A glass-walled cable car capable of holding 65 people, runs along a 1400-meter route between the peaks of Pao de Acucar and Morro da Urca every 20 minutes. The original cable car line was built in 1912 and rebuilt around 1972 / 1973 and then in 2008. The cable car leaves a ground station located at the base of the Babilonia hill, to the Urca hill and then to the Pao de Acucar. The ride offers 360 degree panoramic view of the city and takes just about 3 minutes from start to finish.
As luck would have it, the sky was quite clear and the setting sun casted a golden glow. The view from the peak was truly outstanding. We spent an hour at the two tops before returning to our hotel.
Rest of the evening was free to explore the town. I opted to walk the Copacabana sidewalk and enjoy a dinner at one of the many kiosks lined along the beach.
Early next morning we had a flight that would take us to Quito, Ecuador.
Rio de Janeiro Image Gallery Photo viewer
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