The 6-stop, 15-minute subway trip from Cardeal Arcoverde station in Copacabana to Cinêlandia in Rio de Janeiro Centro is barely long enough to realize that you’re not just travelling from one neighbourhood to another but stepping into a different world.
You know, this world your guidebook warned you about. That place where locals don’t speak English, where there are no world-famous beaches but old and not-so-picturesque buildings, where you could be robbed, killed, assaulted and more.
If you don’t have much time in Rio, you’ll probably skip “Centro,” i.e. downtown. Or maybe you’ll check out a few sights—tour buses can take you to a few selected spots like the “Selaron Steps” and the brand-new science museum. There are even favela tours if you’re curious and if you haven’t seen enough poverty by now. Walking around Centro to explore it? Meh. Pass.
I know I sound like one of these pretentious backpackers, the kind who claim that you haven’t experienced Brazil if you haven’t spent hours wandering around in a favela, drinking with locals and chatting with drug lords.
This is just silly. Objectively, Copacabana and Ipanema are more enjoyable than Centro. These neighbourhoods are safer, stunningly beautiful and yes, this is Brazil too, not just Disneyland for tourists.
It took us several stays in Rio de Janeiro to venture into Centro, mostly because it really wasn’t safe just a few years ago. Then we started exploring during Carnival, where the atmosphere is different and you do things you wouldn’t do otherwise. Now that we know our way around, we’re not scared anymore.
Is Centro safe? Depends. Sometimes it feels okay to explore, sometimes you’re better off turning around. Trust your gut, I’m not your mom or a particularly reliable Rio de Janeiro specialist.
Today was one of these days when exploring felt right. We started at the Escadaria Selarón, the work of Chilean-born artist Jorge Selarón, which are now one of these ridiculously crowded iconic attractions of Rio.
We walked up the 215 steps but instead of coming down the same way, we took the steep streets of Bairro Santa Teresa down to the Arco da Lapa. Until last year, we had always listened to the warning we had heard so many times in Rio—do NOT cross to the other side of the Arco. We did during Carnival last February and we did it again today because the streets seemed busy enough.
Somehow, we ended up in front of the weird-looking Catedral Metropolitana do Rio de Janeiro (I checked later, the architect was apparently inspired by the Mayan pyramid… or stoned, who knows).
“Let’s go! We’ve never been!”
“Sure but… I think I’m wearing the wrong t-shirt for it.”
And this is how I visited the cathedral with my “No gods, no masters” anarchist cropped top I bought in Chile last year.
We wandered around the narrow, busy streets of Centro, a strange mix of posh stores and vendors selling knock offs on the sidewalk, of century-old classic cafés and 2-reais snack bars. People seemed more relaxed than in Copacabana where there are more police officers, more rules and higher standards to please tourists.
Our last stop was the Museu do Amanhã, a strange futuristic structure on the waterfront. We skipped the visit—we went there a few years ago—and took the tramway back to the nearest subway station, in the middle of a busy market.
When I uploaded the pictures tonight, I was struck by how run down Centro looks compared to Copacabana, Ipanema or even to Botafogo. But this is Rio too, and trust me, the atmosphere is interesting.