We would be spending our last two days in South America in the vibrant metropolitan city of Rio de Janeiro, more commonly known as just “Rio”. Like the rest of Brazil (and unlike the rest of South America) the predominant language in Rio is Portuguese. It is one of the most visited cities in the Southern Hemisphere, and while it was the original capital of Brazil, that distinction changed in 1960 when the national capital was moved to Brasilia.
Rio de Janeiro received its name when the first Portuguese navigators arrived at the mouth of Guanabara Bay on the Atlantic Coast of South Eastern Brazil. The navigators mistook the bay for a river (rio in Portuguese) and since it was January 1st, they creatively called it Rio de Janeiro - River of January.
Kim had selected the JW Marriot Hotel Rio de Janeiro as our headquarters for our 2 day stopover in Rio and the location could not have been more perfect. Aside from being at Copacabana, arguably the most famous beach in the world, it was conveniently located near all of the major things that we wanted to see and do on our short stay. Directly behind our hotel was Mount Corcovado, the site of the iconic Christ the Redeemer, which we could see from the beach or from the rooftop pool and bar. From our balcony overlooking the beach, we also had an unobstructed view of Sugarloaf Mountain, one of the major attractions of the city.
We had enjoyed a very restful sleep in the comfortable king bed adorned with luxurious linens on our first night at the JW Marriott so we awoke refreshed and ready to start exploring the sights and sounds of Rio. Before heading out on our first excursion, we went to the Carioca dining area for breakfast where we selected items from an extensive buffet offering.
After breakfast we were picked up by the tour company that Kim had booked and we squeezed into the narrow seats of a tour van that would be taking us around the city for most of the day. We left the hotel just after 8:00am under partly sunny skies and made a couple of stops at other local hotels to pick up the rest of the passengers that were also on the tour. While the hotels were all located in the same general area of Copacabana, not all of the passengers were ready when we arrived to pick them up. In one case we waited nearly 10 minutes for the couple to meet us at their pick-up location. While this is not the way we typically tour (with 12-16 people) it was the most efficient way to get around this massive city to see the major sites in one day.
Our first visit would be to one of the locations we had been looking forward to the most - Christ the Redeemer, standing, arms outstretched, atop Mount Corcovado and one of the most recognizable monuments in the world. It should normally have taken about 20 minutes from our hotel to the entrance of the site where the tickets are purchased but, because of the delay we encountered waiting for passengers, it took over an hour. As a result, by the time the van drove to the entrance of Christ the Redeemer and the guide picked up our tickets so we could be shuttled to the monument at the top of Mount Corcovado, the clouds had begun to settle around the monument which quickly became obscured in a thick, gray mist. We were barely able to make out the statue, even at close quarters, and we could only get glimpses through the cloud, of the sprawling city below, which seemed to be basking in sunshine. After a short discussion with the tour guide, Kim and I determined that it would be best to try again tomorrow and arrive earlier in order to avoid the persistent mist that begins settling on the mountain by mid-morning.
After leaving Mount Corcovado, we continued on our city tour, descending the mountainside on the narrow, winding road that took us through several residential and business neighbourhoods.
We toured around the city core and passed by the famous Maracana Stadium, host of 2 FIFA World Cups, the 2016 Summer Olympics as well as concerts for some of music’s biggest icons including Tina Turner, Paul McArtney, Michael Jackson, Madonna and the Rolling Stones. The stadium was opened in 1950 to host the FIFA World Cup in front of 199,854 spectators making it the world’s largest stadium by capacity and it has held several events in excess of 100,000 until the late 1990’s. Its capacity has been reduced over time as bleachers have been replaced by more comfortable seats and its current capacity is 78,000 as a result of renovations for the 2014 Summer Olympics, still making it the largest stadium in Brazil.
We continued our drive to our next stop - the Metropolitan Cathedral of San Sebastian. This is unlike any cathedral that we have ever visited. While most cathedrals have a traditional, Gothic style with tall spires typically topped by a cross, this one looks like a simple but modern concrete pyramid, devoid on the outside of any religious or Christian symbolism. Inside there is only one level with no columns or supporting structures. It is a large, mostly empty space that can seat 5000 people with a standing room capacity of 20,000. There is a large stepped platform at the center where the main altar is located. Each of the 4 pyramid walls is highlighted by an immense stained glass window that soars 64 meters high (equivalent to 15 stories of a high-rise).
After leaving the San Sebastian, we travelled for another 15 minutes passing through a neighbourhood adorned with colourful and elaborate street art, something we had seen a few times on our morning drive around Rio. We arrived at yet another world famous location in Rio, the Seleron Steps located in the Lapa and Santa Teresa neighbourhoods. The steps were the creation of Chilean artist Jorge Selaron, who began painting the 215 steps measuring 125 metres long in 1990. He originally scavenged tiles from construction sites and waste he found on Rio streets. Eventually, visitors from the around the world would donate tiles that they brought with them and now the steps are covered in more than 2000 distinct and diverse tiles from more than 60 countries. We found several tiles that celebrated Canada, and Kim was particularly drawn to one of Princess Diana whom she had been a fan of since childhood. The steps are a kaleidoscope of colour on a remarkable yet utilitarian canvas that are walked on by thousands of people every day.
It was nearly 1:00pm when we re-boarded the van and drove towards Copacabana beach on our way to lunch. It had been nearly 6 hours since we’d had breakfast so Kim and I were both hungry. The tour operator had booked a reservation for us at Churrasacaria Carretao Lido, a traditional Brazilian rotisserie steakhouse serving sizzling meats, salads, cold cuts and sauces as well as Japanese cuisine including sushi and sashimi. The restaurant was extremely busy and our group was seated at the reserved table near the front of the restaurant. Each of us was provided with a 2 sided disk the size of a coaster which was green on one side and red on the other. Bustling waiters began arriving at our table with large skewers of sizzling meat including beef, pork, chicken and lamb. As long as the green side of the disk was facing up, slabs of steaming meat were placed on your plate. One of the most popular skewered dishes for a trio of our group who were work colleagues from Guatemala, was the chicken hearts. There were more than a dozen hearts on each skewer and the trio had several skewers each. To top off the meal and help digest our food, some of us ordered a cachaça, the traditional Brazilian spirit which, by law, must be produced in Brazil from local sugarcane.
The final stop scheduled on our tour was to Sugarloaf Mountain, situated on a peninsula that reaches out into Guanabara Bay. It is so named because it resembles the traditional cone shape of the concentrated loaf sugar that was commonly transported during the 16th century at the height of Brazil’s sugarcane trade. The summit of Sugarloaf is attained via 2 cable car rides - the first to Morro da Urca and from there to the taller Sugarloaf peak. The cable car system has been running since 1912 though it has been upgraded several times since. The cars are Swiss-made and bubble shaped allowing for a 360 degree panoramic view of the city, beaches and bay area.
Since this was the last stop of our escorted tour and given that we were relatively close to our hotel on Copacabana (which we could see from Sugarloaf), we told our guide that we would leave the group at this point and find out own way back to the hotel. This gave us additional time to spent on Sugarloaf at our own pace and not have to wait in the van as we dropped off the rest of the passengers at their respective hotels. This proved to be a wise decision as the Uber ride from the Sugarloaf entrance to our hotel was roughly ten minutes.
It was mid-afternoon when we got back to the hotel and as it was quite warm, we went to the rooftop pool to enjoy the spectacular views of the beach. We also had a great view of 2 of the sites we had visited earlier - Christ the Redeemer, looking down on us from his perch on the mountain behind the hotel and Sugarloaf Mountain, in the distance on the beachside of the hotel. We sat at a table next to the glass railing overlooking the beach sipping on glasses of sparkling wine and chatting casually about our day.
I had booked a reservation at an Italian restaurant located about a kilometer from the hotel and further down the beach. We walked from our hotel along the wide but busy sidewalk passing hotel after hotel until we arrived at the restaurant - the Allora Al Miramer. Since we were early by South American standards (our reservation was for 7:00pm), the restaurant was nearly empty. We were seated at a window table looking out onto the main street that separates the hotels from the beach. We each ordered a pasta dish accompanied by wine.
Following dinner we decided to cross over to the very wide boulevard the runs down the middle of the street, splitting the opposing lanes of traffic. Each side of the street has 3 lanes of traffic and in the 2 days we were here the traffic was seemingly unending. It gets particularly busy at night so we were extremely cautious in crossing from our side of the street to the boulevard. The boulevard itself becomes a bustling market at night with stall after stall of crafts, clothes, souvenirs and mobile liquor carts where you can buy a beer or your favourite alcoholic beverage to consume as you continue down the street. The cacophony of sound coming from the beach, the market and the traffic was interspersed with occasional police or ambulance sirens. We weren’t sure whether to feel intimidated or relieved by the sight of police officers at nearly every intersection along the stretch from the restaurant back to our hotel. At any rate, we enjoyed the casual walk back to the hotel and took in as much as we could of this very sensory experience before we retired for the night.
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