By Josh Baldwin
Flying into Sao Paulo airport at 10pm is not nearly as chaotic as I thought it might be. I had pictured tens of thousands of people speeding in all directions, cackles of broken languages from around the globe filling the nerve-tinged air and shady characters looming in the shadows of forgotten phone banks, just waiting for an unsuspecting tourist to pull a ridiculous amount of cash out of the ATM.
In fact, it was about as crowded as any regional airport on a normal day. No shady characters, no frantic flyers chasing their gates. Pretty normal in fact. As I headed to the exit where a black circular cabstand with six windows spawned a line of 50 people, a burly man with curly salt and pepper hair approached me. Here we go. I knew it was coming. He had a private taxi service and wanted $75 dollars to take me to me room at the Holiday Inn about 20 miles away. Seeing that no one in the long line of people were even paying attention to this guy, I knew something was up. I politely declined and got in line. Ten minutes later I had a certified cab for about the same price and as I pulled away I saw the same man still trying to attract a victim... I mean fare… as freshly arrived tourists exited the airport
Sao Paulo by day is one thing, but Sao Paulo at night is a long tunnel of lights and people and motorcycles. Modernity has been friendly to Sao Paulo, the economic beacon of Brazil, which will become the world’s 5th largest economy by 2030 and boasts just as much oil reserves as Iraq.
My room at the Holiday Inn was a nice change from the hostel like conditions of the rooms in Argentina, but I was paying for it as well. A fat $200 a night. But room service, a CNN International news channel and a massive breakfast buffet more than made up for it.
After my waffle and eggs breakfast I asked the concierge to get me a cab, and with luggage in tow I hopped a fare to the second largest bus terminal in the world. The Tiete Bus Terminal is over 1.2 million square feet and features 70 boarding platforms. Multi-colored boxes were strewn around the complex, hawking a variety of bus tickets to destinations across Brazil and Latin America. Most of them had the name of the destination printed in bold sans serif fonts atop the cubicle, making it relatively easy to find the company that could get me to Piracicaba.
Piracicaba is a small Brazilian “town” of nearly 400,000 people where my nephew Logan had been for the past year as part of a Rotary exchange program. It was about two hours northwest of Sao Paulo along a well-developed highway through what could have been any American trip through the suburbs. Brazil’s infrastructure, roads, and signage were so familiar that you could have mistakenly thought you woke up in a number of American cities.
Upon arrival to Piracicaba, Logan and his host father Antonio Carlos picked me up and took me back to their gated neighborhood, where Antonio’s wife and Logan’s host mother, Veridiana, was preparing a shrimp curry feast for Easter supper.
That evening, Logan and his host brother, Jose (pronounced zo-se) decided they would take me to the city’s futbol game—a game in which Piracicaba had to win in order to remain eligible for the playoffs. Having missed the chance to see La Boca Juniors in San Telmo, I was excited to see a Brazilian match. Jose told me my outfit was unacceptable in that it could put me in danger with the team’s rowdy fans. He and Logan dressed me up in some prison-striped white and black threads and we headed to the game.
The Esquadrão, or “Squadron,” reigned fiercely at the game. The raucous fan club comes equipped to every game with their collection of instruments, banners, flags and vulgar chants. The entire crowd, led by the Esquadrão, would chant along in unison, and dance along to carefully choreographed cheers. A large bass drum pounded rhythms throughout the match, never relenting once, even during halftime.
In the end, Piracicaba lost the match and the dejected fans milled about aimlessly stunned by their city’s defeat. Like cattle, we inched towards the single exit as best we could and headed home.
The next morning we hopped a bus back to Sao Paulo and took a 1-hour flight to Rio de Jainero, where sun, sand and cachaça awaited.
Arriving in Rio brings with it a certain excitement as you turn through the clear air over pockets of green and turquoise and khaki beaches. The lower the plane descends, the more verdant the forested jungles appear. On the tarmac, I crank open my phone to see if our local guide for the day had tried to contact me.
Rafael Torres has been providing personal guide services in Rio for over a decade and as the number one guide according to Trip Advisor (a ranking he’s extremely proud of and aims to keep) I figured he was a trustworthy soul. Rio hasn’t the safest reputation by any means, and Logan and I needed a good guide and translator to help us see the “real” Rio, the one of funky rhythms and colorful people.
Although our flight was a little late landing, Rafael was waiting in the terminal as we unboarded the plane, holding a sign that read “Josh and Nephew.” His friend was with him because his car was in the shop and she was to be our driver for the day. We packed our luggage in the back of her Subaru and hit out across the city.
Favelas (see sidebar) jutted out along the edges of the mountains like blocks of colorful Legos in an M.C. Escher painting. Ladders, stairwells, and sheet metal created some sort of order through the chaos. While some guides actually provide favela tours, I personally felt it a little too insensitive—paying to have someone guide you around the slums so that you can see where movies like City of God or Elite Squad were filmed, to me, seemed like a certain kind of exploitation. The equivalent would be paying someone to drive you through coal country to view Appalachian poverty up close. But to each his own I guess. Different strokes, different folks.
Rafael’s first order of business was to provide us a bird’s eye view of Rio. While most people shoot straight to Sugar Loaf Mountain or “the Christ,” as the Christ the Redeemer Statue is affectionately called in Rio, Rafael instead led us across the long Rio-Niteroi Bridge. The bridge stretches over eight miles long across Guanabara Bay to the city of Niteroi, a financial and commercial enclave of sorts that features modern buildings, shipping centers, fine restaurants and the Contemporary Art Museum, a UFO-shaped landmark surrounded by rippling reflecting pools and the soft crash of waves along the coast.
We steered the car up a winding mountain into Parque da Cidade and arrived at a small hang gliding business partly owned by Rafael himself. The perch featured a couple launch pads that projected in varying directions. With the wind not up to gliding standards, we instead took in a view most tourists never consider much less even know about.
After a few pictures atop the mountain, we headed back down to eat at yet another churrascaria. Brazilians love their lunches, a much bigger meal than dinner in Brazil. And churrascarias are the only way to go. I ordered a Brazilian beer and tried my first taste of fried chicken livers, which I found to be rich and delicious.
After lunch, we jumped back into the Subaru, traversed the bridge again and headed for The Christ before the fog settled in. But as soon as we reached the bottom of the mountain, the fog swallowed the top of Corcovado whole and instead we explored the Tijuca Forest, a national park that offers thick, deciduous forests, waterfalls and ample views from a number of lookout points featuring spectacular vistas of Copacabana, Ipanema, and Sugar Loaf.
On the other side of the mountain, we dropped down into the Santa Teresa district, where colonial mansions of the city’s Portuguese past lined the steep hillsides and narrow, winding streets. Colorful graffiti adorned the district’s concrete retaining walls. Down we went, back into the bowl of the city’s heart, tracing the edges of years of colonial history until we pulled the Subaru into an unattractive, unassuming spot with little view and no real assumed significance. Rafael turned to us from the front seat and explained that we were at The Selaron Steps, the famous tiled steps that the city is hoping will soon become a Unesco site, a designation that brings with it a number of cultural and environmental protections.
Jorge Selaron was born in Chile in 1950 and settled in Rio in 1983. He began renovating the steps of Rua Manuel Carneiro in 1990 as a tribute to the country that gave him a home.
The steps are such that it would take weeks to view each separate tile. Today, the steps total over 250 and feature over 2,000 tiles sent to the artist from 60 countries around the world. A cursory check yields Alaska, China, Butte Montana, Sydney, Australia and a number of pregnant African women, which is a recurring theme in all of Selaron’s work. Selaron himself has been vague about the meaning of the pregnant woman, only to say, “it is something from my past,” and while certain stories and lore speculate to the reason, the artist himself comments on it very little.
As we descend the steps, Rafael stops us and says that the artist himself is actually sitting in the steps below us if we would like to meet him. Of course we do! Rafael wades through a few people gathered around the unassuming, t-shirt clad artist with a fisherman’s hat smoking a cigarette. He is immediately greeted as a friend. We are introduced to Selaron and invited into his personal gallery, operated out of what seems to be a front room in his home. In the gallery there are a number of original works of art available, all painted on tile board and of varying sizes, from small 5”x5” tiles to four-foot tall pieces. I find that one of them speaks to me and for $120 USD purchase a two-foot tall tile that features a favela with the artist’s thematic pregnant women and The Christ statue looking down. Outside, Selaron writes a note on the back of the tile board with a thick pencil, takes a picture with us (making us all stick out our tongues with aggression) and writes down his address so that we may send our own tile from home to integrate into his massive project.
Further down the steps throngs of kids are found skateboarding and smoking weed. The beauty of the Selaron Steps, for me, is that they are living art not bogged down overexposed in a touristy part of the city. Rather they are hidden away. No tour buses pull up to the steps, no guided tours being advertised in your hotel room. Just real art, by a real folk hero, in a real, living neighborhood.
We jump in the car and reflect on how important it is to travel and have these kinds of experiences. And that goes back to why we hired someone like Rafael to show us HIS city, not the one found in Fodor’s or Lonely Planet.
Rafael delivers us directly to our hotel’s front door and helps us with our luggage. He makes sure that our reservations are correct before we say our goodbyes.
The Golden Tulip Ipanema Plaza hotel lies one block back from Ipanema Beach and hosts a number of tourists from all over the world. The hotel features a rare rooftop pool with killer views of The Christ to the north and Ipanema Beach to the south. We enjoy a very European breakfast buffet of meats, cheeses and bread before setting up camp on the sands of Ipanema Beach, made famous in the song “The Girl from Ipanema.”
The beach itself is framed in by the jutting widow’s peak of Copacabana Beach to the east and two mountains known as Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers) at its western end. Logan and I settled in to some rented beach chairs and ordered some ice-cold Brahma beers from one of a number of vendors that walked up and down the beach, selling everything from sunscreen and bikinis to jewelry and art. Some vendors sold grilled meats that they would cook right beside your beach chair.
The water shined luminous blues and huge nine-foot breaks made the surf exhausting after a few minutes. Even though it was technically the “off-season,” the beach still played true to its reputation as an active beach filled with beautiful people. Thousands of tourists and locals alike lined the shore, creating a colorful mosaic of humanity framed in by rising hills quilted over with verdant green forests.
After a day getting sunburned on the beach, we rented a couple of bikes from a local shop and pedaled the entire length of both Ipanema and Copacabana beaches. Along the way we passed remnants of the day’s popular Hippie Fair, a weekly bazaar that attracts thousands of customers. At the eastern end of Copacabana we traversed a walkway built into the side of a sheer rock cliff. The walkway provided fisherman a number of idyllic casts and dozens lined the railing with buckets of chum-like bait at the side and numerous lines sunk into the turquoise waters below. We returned the bikes and hit up another churrascaria located on a charming tree-lined street.
The city of Ipanema is laid out in a very symmetrical, grid pattern and benefits from years of responsible planning and infrastructure. Wide canopied trees that provide shade by day and atmosphere by night surround cobbled streets. Numerous restaurants, cafes, bars and boutique shopping outlets line the streets, along with tourist police that keep visitors safe. Ipanema is by far the safest place to stay in Rio, but it is also the most expensive. Where Copacabana becomes a little seedy once the sun falls, Ipanema steps up its game and provides a number of tourist-friendly amenities without sacrificing its indigenous charm and flavor. And Caipirinha cocktails at the rooftop bar of the beachfront Caesar Park hotel, with views over the entire city and beach, allow you the luxury of “taking it all in.”
On our last day in Rio, we awoke to completely clear skies and our first glimpse of The Christ stretching his arms across the city. We quickly packed and asked a cab driver out front if he would take us to Corcovado, wait in the car for an hour so that we could visit the statue, and then get us to the international airport before by 11am for our return flight. We weren’t the first people to ask for this kind of arrangement and without hesitation the taxi driver gave us a price that seemed both fair and agreeable.
Once at the base of Corcovado we paid an entrance fee to the park and boarded a shuttle bus to the top of the mountain. Upon arrival it became clear that Catholic mass was being conducted at the base of the statue and hundreds of people milled about, snapping pictures and video clips of not only the 130-foot tall soapstone statue, but also of the 360-degree views of the city that plays host to the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Down below, we hopped back into the cab and bolted for the international airport. Two hours later we were again wisping through the thin, clear sky above Rio, its green mountains and sprawling metropolis slowly shrinking away.