Some cities are perfect to wander around—not Rio.
In Rio, you tend to follow a straight path. First, you’re stuck between the hills—I’m pretty sure some qualify as mountains—and the shore, so there’s no much room to move around. Second, it’s probably not a great idea to stray from the main streets and avenues if you’re not sure where you’re going because there are plenty of neighbourhoods you don’t want to get lost in.
You can’t really “explore” Rio the way you would with many other cities. However, you can climb the social ladder if you have a couple of hours to spare.
Start in Cinelândia, for instance and walk straight through Lapa. Guidebooks invariably sell this neighbourhood as “vibrant” and “bohemian” with “great nightlife.” Do you know where I wouldn’t like to be at 1 a.m.? Lapa. I’m probably being unfair, I’m sure it’s a lovely place if you know your way around, but it feels super dodgy. That’s the kind of place where locals helpfully tell you you shouldn’t be here, for instance.
Past Lapa is Catete. Buildings are in a slightly better shape and there are plenty of people selling random items on the sidewalk—think of it as a garage sale where you can buy a Barbie doll without a head or a used pair of shoes.
Gloria feels like a working-class neighbourhood but it’s definitely richer than Lapa and Catete. Vendors don’t display goods on the sidewalk, they have stalls. It’s a good neighbourhood to buy cheap clothes and more. It’s pretty safe as well and it’s always crowded all the way to Lago do Machado.
Botafogo and Flamengo aren’t as famous as Copacabana and Ipanema but they are middle-class neighbourhoods. Hidden between the hills of Santa Marta, Mundo Novo and Morro de Sao Joao, they are home to many expats, many bars and two large shopping malls. This is also where you’ll get great views of the Corcovado—to quote Mark, “stop showing it to me, I see Jesus EVERYWHERE!”
Cross the “tunnel of death” and walk straight into Copacabana. No need to introduce this neighbourhood, you’ve heard about it I’m sure. Unless you need to shop, avoid the very crowded Avenida Nossa Senhora de Copacabana and walk on Avenida Atlântica, along the beach. Every few metres, you’ll hear a different band playing in the quiosques—it goes from Pink Floyd with a Portuguese accent to Nego do Borel and one of them is bound to be singing Antônio Carlos Jobim’s Garota De Ipanema (usually close to, you guess it, Ipanema).
“Go ahead, Mark, pick the wallet you like, take your time.”
“Okay. So, I don’t want one with the Jesus on the mountain. First of all, Jesus doesn’t exist, second, the movie wasn’t that great.”
I burst out laughing—Mark watched the end of The Passion of the Christ at Christmas on TV. So apparently, Jesus isn’t his favourite movie character despite all the churches he forced us to visit when he was a toddler…
Right after Copacabana is Ipanema, and further is Leblon, the poshest neighbourhood. On Sunday, the beach is a crowded mess with visitors from all over the city. Every few minutes, I heard people clapping, and I had no idea why. I finally understood that police officers patrolling were helping lost kids find their family, so everyone around was participating and clapping hands to attract attention to the situation.
Rio is a complicated place. It’s a stressful city yet some parts are stunning and relaxing, it’s a rich city with many poor people, it’s an old city trying to look modern.
For me, Rio will always be the bunch of teens drunkenly—and somewhat ironically—singing Cidade Maravilhosa on their way to a party last year.