My last-minute one-week stay in Rio de Janeiro was a bit of an experiment. I’m not new to Rio—it was our last stop and main goal during out initial 2001-02 trip and we came back many times after that. Hell, we were here earlier this year again.
I admit with shame that I like Rio but I’m not in love with it. It’s unique, it’s pretty, it’s fascinating and it doesn’t take long to discover it comes with fine print—lots of it. Rio is one of these cities where it’s best to go full-tourist mode. Go ahead, take the bondinho all the way to the top of the Pão de Açucar, relax on Ipanema Beach, stroll along Copacabana Beach, check out Centro if you feel like it, grab some água de coco, watch the sunset, close your eyes… Yes, close your eyes. This is an important part of your stay in Rio. Open them wide in places your guidebook recommends and keep them close the rest of the time, else you might notice the favelas, overflowing sewers, garbage pickers trying to make a living, awful traffic and other not-so-glamorous sides of Rio.
Rio de Janeiro is not an easy city to live in. I’d argue it’s not really Brazil either. It’s… unique, in good and bad ways.
So why on earth did I decide to spend a week in Rio?
Because I could. The flight from São Paulo was very cheap (less than $45!) and since I’m travelling alone, I was able to book a “nice” Airbnb—it’s always a challenge to find a three-bed hotel room or apartment in Rio de Janeiro, space is at a premium.
Maybe having a clean, comfortable place with a kitchen would make a difference. Maybe I could put my Rio experience to good use. Maybe I could just hang out on Copacabana and Ipanama beaches for a week and relax after Carnival and chillier weather in São Paulo.
Before you ask, yes, I did check the weather forecast in Rio de Janeiro, but it’s not very reliable—sunny, chances of rain, same as usual.
I had no idea it was going to rain pretty much 24/7 for the entire week. This is rare by the way, apparently it was the rainiest month in 23 years. Lucky me…
In the street, Cariocas and I came in two versions—“Plastic bag” if wearing a capa da chuva (rain poncho) and “Mary Poppins” with a guarda chuva (umbrella). Rain can add character to some cities—not Rio, though. When it rains in Rio, streets flood very quickly and there are giant puddles everywhere. The lovely Portuguese pavement gets very, very slippery and it’s hard to get around. A daily downpour cleans the streets but constant rain turns the city into a wet and soggy mess.
My Airbnb was clean, quiet and quite modern but it also came with the usual Rio flaws, the main one being fechado (“closed”). Cariocas are obsessed with safety—many Brazilians are, somewhat understandably given the massive income gap and the very different lives being lived in the same city, but Rio takes peace of mind to a whole new level. There are doors and gates everywhere and most apartments are hidden at the back of the building with as few windows as possible. I also had a fancy digital lock with a chain lock and the 24/7 team of two doormen screening everyone. I was in Catete, a regular working-class neighbourhood, by the way—there’s extra security and seclusion in posh bairros like Leblon.
Other minor issues were the fact the apartment looked great but wasn’t that functional. For instance, the washing machine was broken and the host had left a long list of instructions on what to do if there was no hot water as well as contact info for all kinds of repairmen “just in case.” Basically, the apartment had been renovated but the building was hopelessly old—you can’t fix bad plumbing…
My final complaint about Rio would be the food. Holy shit, the food… I ate very well everywhere in Brazil except in Rio. I can’t even explain what’s wrong with the food because Cariocas seem to enjoy it, so I’ll just say it’s a matter of taste. Which is exactly the problem, by the way—it’s completely tasteless. Rio seems to specialize in what I’d call “pub grub,” like finger food, fried snacks, pizza, burgers, etc. Vegetables are typically gratinados, i.e. baked in cheese or cream cheese.
“I picked up pasta at Spoleto,” I told Feng the first night.
“Oh, no… it’s not very good, you know, it’s basically an Italian fast food.”
“Tasted exactly like the Air Canada pasta meal,” I confirmed the following day.
On the plus side, Rio apparently ran out of soda cans after Carnival and I felt like a complete badass using a bottle opening after buying Coke Zero glass bottles—eh, it’s a novelty for someone who doesn’t drink alcohol…
Despite all that, I don’t regret my week in Rio. Sure, it wasn’t what I had in mind. I didn’t get to relax on the beach with a book but I was still able to explore Centro, see Copacabana and Ipanema under the rain, catch one of the last Carnival megablocos and experiment “normal life” in Rio. Yes, the city is more normal you’d think considering all the safety warnings.
Rio de Janeiro looked a bit grim, a bit dodgier under the rain, yet still surprisingly beautiful if unconventionally so.
Would I go back to Rio?
Hell yeah. It’s Rio.