Breathtaking Rio - The Grand Finale

Trip Start Jun 27, 2009
1
8
Trip End Jul 16, 2009


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Flag of Brazil  , State of Rio de Janeiro,
Thursday, July 16, 2009


Only 2 Days in amazing Rio - so little time in such an incredible place. Rio is larger than life with iconic images of the Sugar Loaf and Christ the Redeemer dominating a city of beautiful beaches surrounded by green hills, islands and mammoth rocks. This is definitely a city to spend an entire week in, if not more. I have no doubt I will be back in the not-to-distant future - maybe next time on my way to the Amazon.

We took the ferry from Ilha Grande and then took a van to get to our hotel in Rio. We stayed at the Hotel Angrense, which is beyond basic (pretty sad when you cannot even get a top sheet on the bed), but which was 2 blocks above Copacabana Beach.

Since the weather was good, most of us did a city tour as soon as we got there. This ended up being a great idea since the next day it was raining. We first went to visit the statue of Christ the Redeemer which overlooks Rio de Janiero. Years ago, I had seen the smaller Christ statue  based in the port of Lisbon, Portugal. It was incredible to now see its more magnificent counterpart. It's really unbelievable when you see the statue from afar (as you do from many spots in Rio), that they were able to construct an observation platform around it (the lifts at Sugar Loaf are equally, if not more impressive, as an engineering feat). After going up and up first in our van and then in another van at the locale, we got to the Christ statue which was really incredible. From here the views of the city are spectacular. - the ocean, Sugar Loaf, beaches, jungle, boulders, downtown buildings, sports stadiums and of course the 700 favellas -shantytowns where 20% of Rio's poorest residents live, and which have been made infamous in films such as Cidade de Deus (City of God). Such diversity of urban and wild, of the genius of man-made creation and of nature, of wealth and poverty - it's such a place of extremes and contradictions that go beyond usual class contradictions of big cities (whether it's seeing a homeless person sleeping across the street from Trump Tower in Manhattan or having L.A.'s Bonaventure hotel for presidents and kings steps from Skid Row). We, of course, got lots of pictures from this vantage point as we squeezed through the throngs of tourists (can't imagine the madness this must be during high season) to get pictures in front of the statue. In such a religious country it's bizarre to see so many people taking the opportunity to take the cheesy photos (assume crucifixion pose, pretend you are holding up Jesus, really...?). Although, I have to say that I was probably most disturbed by the Sponge Bob Square pants statue on the rock leading up to Sugar Loaf, facing the same way as the Christ with his arms in the air (so unnecessary, and in such terrible, terrible bad taste - how much did Nickelodeon bribe Rio for this uber-cheesy, offensive statue?)

After visiting the statue, we drove a little through downtown Rio and took in some of the views of city from the top of an old colonial home. In the St. Theresa neighborhood, we visited the famous steps of the Convent Stairway of Escadaria Selaron. Here Chilean artist Atelier Selaron transformed the 215 steps of Joaquim Silva Street into an artistic masterpiece of tiles he collected from all over the world. It is gorgeous - colorful, animated and full of warmth representing places from nearly every corner of the world. The steps had recently been featured in music videos such as Snoop Dog's "Beautiful" and U2's "Walk On - International Version." My Scottish friend, Ailsa and I noticed a man on the steps who looked an awful lot like the artist, and after stopping to talk to him realized it was Selaron. He was very nice and took pictures with us. We were then directed into his studio where he had many pieces of his art for sale. While I love his tile work, his drawings of himself as a pregnant, Black woman were less enticing. It was a really amazing experience to meet him. After leaving the steps we took the cable cars to the top of Sugar Loaf. Believe people when they tell you to bring a sweater or jacket (it is really windy). We got to stop had both rocks and take lots of pictures (with hair flying everywhere) and enjoy the sunset at the top of Sugar Loaf. It was magnificent seeing the city turn from day to night, to watch the lights come on across the beaches and the city and to watch the black birds of the sky glide across Rio's winds without having to bat a wing. We had our last group dinner together that night at a first-class buffet restaurant (is there such a thing in the States?) where I was a little overwhelmed by the continuous offerings of food and giant carcasses of meats being brought to the table every other minute. We then went to a bar and hung out before deciding to meet for breakfast the next morning and say our goodbyes.

I woke up early the next morning to go walk the beaches before breakfast. Unfortunately, it was pouring rain and not promising for a day of appreciating Copacabana and Ipanema. After breakfast and group gathering to thank Suellen and wishing everyone well, I went with Ailsa to help her move to another hotel in St. Theresa (at the great Florida Hotel in St. Theresa - a palace compared to our usual accommodations). We dropped her stuff off and then took the metro to the Uragaiana stop to check out downtown Rio. (The St. Teresa area of the city is really central to the metro and to both the beaches and downtown. It makes for a nice area to stay.) The metro is really easy to navigate and connects you to a lot of the major sites of the city. We ended up in the middle of the famed Saara Market (named after the Sahara for the variety of immigrants that ended up in this part of town). Here people sell anything and everything from knock-offs of famous brands of purses and luxury goods, to cheap sports gear to elaborate Carnival costumes and decorations. We stopped in a lot of the Carnival stores and enjoyed seeing all the crazy things they sold for the world's biggest party. After getting a bit lot in the maze of the Saara we ended up at the Campo de Santana Park, which we were warned by locals was not safe, but seemed perfectly fine to me (I was later warned by locals about taking pictures at Ipanema Beach on a busy morning which seemed equally odd and overly-cautious to me.). The park was lovely, full of statues and gorgeous greenery. What was so surprising is that it was also full (and I mean full) of cats, ducks and agoutis (large rodents that look like long-legged brown guinea pigs). The cats, birds and agoutis lived and ate together in a bizarre harmony. The biggest concentration of them was by a set of big boulders where people had left out food for them. Sadly, there were some really sick cats and cats that really craved human attention (and were probably pets before being left here). They were obviously just breeding and breeding. This park is in desperate need of a trap-and-release program.

After getting back on track to look at some of the highlights of downtown Rio, we followed the Avidena President Vargas (populist dictator of Brazil) past colonial and modern buildings, including the famous church that was the site of the 1994 murder of sleeping street children by the Rio police. We visited the Centro Cultural Banco de Brazil which ended up having one of the best art exhibits I had ever seen. The Cultural Banco was having a big festival celebrating animation and was colorful, quirky and full of kids. We had a nice late lunch upstairs and then visited the Yves Saint Laurent exhibit on global fashion (which I enjoyed - sans fur) and which also featured his "Love Paintings" from throughout the decades which hung in the middle of the great ceiling and created a wonderful, whimsical atmosphere in the building. The highlight of the museum however was an extraordinary exhibit on the avant garde collection of Russian Art on loan from the State Museum in St. Petersburg. Although seeing Russian art on a trip to South America was a bit odd, especially when all my attempts to see Latin American art in Buenos Aires seemed to fail, the exhibit was fantastic. Covering art from Chagall to Kandinsky to the propaganda art and Soviet Realism of Stalinist Russia, the paintings were unbelievable. I could have spent the entire day in absolute awe. Some of the artists that I was unfamiliar, but astounded by included Kazimir Malievitch, Pavel Filonov, Boris Grigoriev, Filip Maliavin, Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Gontcharova. I ended up with my most expensive souvenir here, the hardcover book for the exhibit. It, however, does no justice to the color, texture, vision and elaborate geometry that you see firsthand being in front of these paintings. I don't think I've ever before fully appreciated how limiting art prints were before seeing this exhibit. Knowing it was my last night in Rio though, I knew I had to make my way back to the beaches. I had not even been to Ipanema. After we stopped to look at the colorful colonial passageway of the Arcos dos Tellas, I went back to the hotel.

I took the metro back to Copacabana and after dropping off my large book, I decided to walk the entirety of Copacabana and Ipanema (which are not connected, but easily walkable). I probably walked for about 3-4 hours watching the sun set on the beaches, taking photographs of the transition of day to night and looking at the large art pieces of paintings and sandcastles (some of which I didn't get pictures of because of the very adamant suggestions for donations). By the time I got to Ipanema it was lovely, but dark. There is no contest on what beach is the most beautiful in Rio - Ipanama is just gorgeous. The beautiful hills that frame it make it an easy winner. Coming home through the streets of the cute shopping areas of Leblon and Ipanema, you definitely the class difference in Ipanema - the fancy cars, the perfectly coifed purebred dogs. This is the home of the rich. Everywhere in seems in Brazil, people are just nice - from people giving you advice on where to go (or not go) or helping you translate pineapple into Portuguese (definitely felt a lot more helpless in terms of communication in Brazil than in Uruguay or Argentina). The next morning I woke up to a gorgeous sunny morning where after taking the very easy-to-use public bus down to Ipanema, I got to see the lovely beach during the day as Rio's very active and body-conscious residents jogged and biked down this iconic beach. It was a very nice goodbye to a wonderful city I spent far too little time in. After having breakfast back at the hotel with some very fun theater actors and musicians from Angola, Africa, my Australian friend and I made our way to the airport. I said a bittersweet goodbye to a fantastic adventure.

 
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