Christ, smaller in person than you would think.

Our first day in Rio de Janeiro started with a predawn trek through Paraty to catch the bus. Fortunately, we had picked up the tickets the day before so it wasn’t a problem when the ticket booth for the bus company wasn’t open. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, sitting at a bus station at 5:00am before dawn means keeping an eye on some suspect looking individuals. Of course, it was 5:00am and I hadn’t had a shower or any coffee, so it’s entirely possible others were keeping an eye on me.

After a very scenic tour along Costa Verde, our bus worked it’s way into downtown Rio.  All the while we kept an eye out for what is probably Rio’s best known attraction, the Cristo Redentor statue (Christ the Redeemer), which overlooks the city from high on Corcovado mountain. Do you know what went through my head upon first seeing this world-famous site on the horizon?

Huh, that’s it? Yep, Cristo Redentor joins the Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty on my list of global landmarks that seem a bit underwhelming when you see them in person. I don’t mean to pick on French-made landmarks, like the Statue of Liberty this one was shipped from France, it’s just that they don’t seem to live up to the hype.

Anyway, we found a taxi and made our way to the hotel. Now a tradition for us, we were finishing the trip in a nicer than normal hotel, so we were directly across from the beach in Copacabana.

View of Copacabana Beach from the roof of our hotel.

The downside of staying in a nicer hotel, especially those owned by Americans, is that they ask you to pay exorbitant prices for wifi access. So we didn’t. I mean who’s going to notice if blog posts go up after we are already home. (I’m looking at you Amy)

With a tight schedule in a big city we decided to take a tour rather than just wander on our own. With some advice from a friend at G Adventures we settled on Be A Local.

After a quick lunch by the pool, and some much-needed time in the sun, we headed down to the lobby to meet the guide from Be a Local. We joined a Scottish couple in the van and headed off through the streets of Rio making a few more stops to pick up a global sampling of 20 to 30 year-olds from Australia, Chile, Columbia and Wales. Of course, I shouldn’t forget our fearless guide Eddie, a former graphic designer who now leads these tours full-time.

Looking for Redemption

With the group complete we headed off to our first stop, Christ the Redeemer. We’ll just call him Christos. The topography of the area means that Rio’s 9 million or so residents are divided up into what felt like fairly distinct neighbourhoods. The route to the statue gave us a chance to get a glimpse of several of Rio’s many neighbourhoods, including Copacabana, Lapa, Ipenema, and Leblon, as we drove around the lagoon, Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, that will likely be home to the rowing and paddling events at the 2016 Olympics.

Christos is placed high above the city, 706 m to be exact, on Corcovado Mountain. Until recently a Cog train, originally built in 1882, took visitors up to the top of the mountain. Sadly, several people were killed in an accident about two months ago so the trains have been taken out of service. Instead we took our van up to a certain point where the site vans take over, ferrying people up and down the winding roads.

Despite my comments above, it is impressive that they managed to build a 40 m statue on this mountain 80 years ago. It just wasn’t as big in person as the pictures make it out to be. The good news is that the views of the city from the top of Corcovado more than make up for it. Just be ready to be firm in making your way through the crowds. Oh, and it’s not polite to step on the tourists lying on their backs at the foot of the statue trying to get the perfect picture.

What? How big did you want?
"'See, I told you my arms are longer."
Hmm, I guess we're kind of blocking the view.

Having come from the southern part of the city (Leblon, Ipanema, Copacabana) we descended from Corcovado through the northern neighbourhoods including Santa Teresa, Lapa and Centro. If we are ever back in Rio, we’ll definitely spend some more time in Santa Teresa. It’s not so much that there is anything in particular to see but it’s the kind of neighbourhood where you can just stroll into one of the cafes and while an afternoon away listening to the live music having a beer. It was also full of interesting street art and graffiti.

World Cup 2010 mural in Santa Teresa, Rio de Janeiro.

The Ugliest Church

As we passed through Centro we stopped at the Catedral Metropolitana. From the outside the cathedral can only be described as hideous. An example of brutalist architecture, it looks like a building I might have designed…with clay…wearing a blindfold…in grade two…after coming down from a wicked candy high. Ever wonder why there aren’t more brutalist architects today? No, no you don’t. And for good reason.

Catedral Metropolitana, Rio de Janeiro.

The horrific outside only made the inside that much more stunning. The upside of an exposed concrete structure is an interior with a capacity for 5,000 seated (20,000 standing) that has no interior columns. Massive stain glass walls and a cross that appears to be floating in space make it one of the more interesting interiors of a religious building I have ever seen.

Catedral Metroplitana.
Floating cross in Catedral Metropolitana.

Not how I would spend 20 years but…

One of our surprise highlights in Rio was the Escadaria Selarón. Straddling the neighbourhoods of Lapa and Santa Teresa, Escadaria Selarón is a public staircase that was covered in tiles over the course of 20 years by the artist Selarón. The only way I can think to describe the steps is to ask you to think of the Spanish Steps in Rome and then imagine someone had decided to cover them in tiles by hand. Probably easier to look at the pictures below.

Easiest game of "Where's Katy" you'll ever see.

Selarón is a Chilean artist who has lived and worked in 50 countries before settling in Rio in 1983. To us, he was just the slightly crazy looking guy sweeping the bottom of the steps when we arrived. He has a little shop halfway up the steps where you can buy some of his art. We ended up picking up a small print and when we came out he was kind enough to sign it and sit with Katy for a picture.

Katy and Selarón. Who says artists can be eccentric?

Hmm, this mountain sounds tasty

Our last stop for the day was Sugar Loaf Mountain. The 396 m mountain rises out of the water above Guanabara Bay and gets its name from the shape which apparently resembles clay moulds used to refine sugar.

Cable car up to Sugar Loaf Mountain.

Almost as if Be A Local had done this before and hand a plan, we arrived just as the sun was setting. So, after the two cable car rides it takes to get to the top, we had some great views of the city at night.

Rio at night. Taken from Sugar Loaf Mountain.

A side note, if you are ever visiting Sugar Loaf Mountain and taking the cable cars up as a group, they are serious about their people limits and have no qualms about breaking up a group of people. It happened to two of us twice on the way down.

Back at the hotel, and armed with some restaurant recommendations from Eddie, we headed out for dinner in Copacabana. The restaurant we ended up choosing was full of locals rather than tourists, usually a good sign. The only downside is that their English wasn’t that much better than our Portuguese. The ensuing communication difficulty turned Katy’s cheese pastry with rice and beans order into a platter of cheese cubes with a bean soup.

"Ta da! Wait, this isn't what I ordered."

In the end it did the job and we were nice and full by the time we headed off to bed that night.

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