Visiting Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Like many people nowadays, I’ve spent most of the past few months sanitizing and self-isolating when I wasn’t working. And although the year is young, it has been full of adventures for me!

I kicked off 2020 with my first trip to South America, which was also my first time in the southern hemisphere! Before visiting my friend, Rodrigo, in the state of Goiás, I spent a few days in Rio de Janeiro.

View of a favela in Rio, as seen from the window of an Uber I took from GIG airport to Lapa.

I ventured through the colorful city during the day and enjoyed caipirinhas with fellow travelers in my hostel after sunset. When I booked Books Hostel, I didn’t know just how popular it was. Mostly everyone I met, locals and foreigners, had heard of Books.

I took a walking tour through Lapa on my second day. The tour started in a square called Cinelândia, which used to be full of cinemas, but now has government buildings, museums and a theater. We walked alongside cute parks and through a flea market near the small royal palace (the monarchy is mainly figureheads). We also passed below the Carioca Aqueduct, spotted Christ the Redeemer and Sugarloaf Mountain from afar, and visited a few churches.

About halfway through the 3 hour tour, we stopped inside the Cathedral of São Sebastião. I enjoyed the breeze inside because I was drenched in sweat by then. It was the sweatiest I’ve ever been! Our tour guide said you can grow accustomed to being so sweaty, but you don’t stop sweating just because you live in such a hot place.

We then walked up Escadaria Selarón, a public tile mosaic stairway designed by Chilean artist Selarón. He handpainted the tiles and collected many from tourists visiting from all over the world, so the stairway represents more than Brazil.

Although caipirinhas are the most famous drink of Brazil, I think milk from coconuts are their lesser-known gem. Street vendors sell simple green coconuts with just a straw stuck in them. I’m not a fan of coconut milk, but it’s quite comical seeing people walk around carrying coconuts!

A newer tourist attraction I visited in Rio is the Museum of Tomorrow. To get there, I walked along the water and past Brazil’s Navy boats (Brazil has a small Navy, nothing like you’d expect from the States). The museum was built alongside one of the pools from the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics, which now has a star art-piece in the center.

The museum hallways had timelines describing significant events in space, life, and human culture. The timelines spanned from the past, to the present, and even into the (possible) future!

My favorite exhibit was a room full of pillars with photos of different peoples doing the same things, but still in their own unique ways. I loved the pillar showing people gathered in a circle for different reasons: praying, dancing, waiting, etc. It did a wonderful job showing how our differences unite us with each other, even when we feel world’s apart.

Another exhibit I enjoyed was a room with a stone monument called a Churinga. It’s symbolic of stories passed down through generations; the continuation of knowledge, identity, and culture that connects the past, present, and future. It also represents the mission of the museum.

I didn’t visit Christ the Redeemer on its mountain because I figured it wasn’t much different up close versus what I could see from the ground. Most people I spoke to who had visited it up close agreed and also said it was so packed with fellow tourists that it lost some appeal. But I did visit sugarloaf mountain!

Sugarloaf’s name comes from the idea that it’s shaped like a loaf of sugar, when they used to be sold in tins. Morro da Urca was the first stop on the cable car. Vendors sold overpriced food and souvenirs up there.

But I really enjoyed walking through the jungle on a path along the hill. The small patch of forest was full of colorful plants, cacti, trees and lizards! Signs warned me to avoid venomous snakes and to watch my step. More signs warned me not to feed the marmosets, invasive monkeys once introduced by settlers. These monkeys are adorable, but damage the environment in Rio and are full of diseases.

Marmoset monkey

On the cable car ride from Morro da Urca to Sugarloaf, I could see climbers scaling up the mountain. I almost got blown away just walking on the viewing platforms up top, nevermind fighting those winds while trying to climb!

On the way back down, I decided to walk from Morro da Urca to the “red beach” down below. The path winded through the jungle, with stones as natural steps and sticks in the dirt as man-made steps. It was a steeper and longer trek than I expected! Since I’m not much of a hiker, I was quite grateful I took the cable car up instead of walking up.

Carnival celebrations are in February, but there were a bunch of pre-Carnival parties in January! “Pre-Carnival” is sort of like a rehearsal for Carnival, with less crowds and less costumes. From the crazy descriptions locals shared about actual Carnival, I was excited to find out I could get a taste of it without the messiness that was to come in February.

The performers were scheduled to start at 3 p.m., but they actually started around 5:30pm. This was a prime example of what’s known as “Brazil time.” Even riding in an Uber (which is relatively cheap, common and safe in Rio), the app would show an estimated arrival time much earlier than the arrival time could possibly be.

I enjoyed drinks in the park with fellow travelers from my hostel while waiting for the performance to start. Although the performers weren’t fully dressed up and the parties weren’t all day long, the energy was contagious! It was impossible to avoid dancing, clapping and singing along with the colorfully dressed dancers, musicians and loud crowd.

Enjoying some of the festivities was a fun farewell to my time in Rio before I flew off to Brasília to meet my friend. I didn’t know it at the time, but those next few days in Brazil would be some of my craziest adventures!

Stay tuned…

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