I recently spent a lot of time in Rio filming two episodes of my travel series Hooked Up and another documentary project deep in the favelas. I found the city quite big and slightly overwhelming and I can imagine that people have vastly different experiences of Rio depending on who they’re with, where they stay and what areas they decide to frequent. It’s not like Rome, for example, where irrespective of your budget or whether you’re with a local or alone, you can generally ‘get’ the appeal and the feel for the city.
My first trip was to a rather underprivileged favela for this documentary, where I was welcomed with such kindness by the local families. I was accompanied by body guards and locals who know the community very well so although I advocate adventure and solo travelling, this is an exception. I don’t know much about those tours through favelas – it sounds kind of disrespectful traipsing through these very intimate villages like some package tourist attraction where the locals are the zoo animals. But then again, to go to Rio and only experience the wealthy areas packed with tourists would also be missing out on the true heart of Brazil.
The next time I returned to Rio a few weeks later, I was staying in an Airbnb apartment. Perhaps this is the answer so that you can get local advice from a Brazilian without having to intrude as part of a giant favela tour group. Just for full disclosure, my travel series is sponsored by Airbnb, but they’re not involved in anything I write here. The truth is, it’s just lovely to sit around over breakfast or dinner and chat to Brazilians about their lifestyle when you’re living with them because I feel it is a very misunderstood city. You really need that local perspective more so than in other countries I’ve visited.
So where would I go if I were you? You’ll see in episode 7 of Hooked Up that I fell deeply in love with the little neighbourhood of Santa Teresa. Every wall, every surface of the village is painted with these vibrantly coloured murals and almost every property has lush mango trees or some kind of vegetation, making you feel so far from the tourist crowded streets down by the beach that are just lined with souvenir stores. My Airbnb host Theresa has such a fascinating knowledge of Brazilian culture and the struggle that those in the favelas have been through and continue to endure, due to her inspiring organisation Catalytic Communities. While Santa Teresa isn’t in the favelas, I certainly felt a great sense of community in the streets of her neighbourhood.
Cafecito has a beautiful terrace underneath giant trees for lunch or cake and coffee. Directly across the road is the cutest little cafe, Cultivar (pictured above), serving the famous cheesy bread balls, Pao de Queijo, that all Brazilians will insist you try. This cafe felt super local and simple with people stopping by to chat with the waitresses from the footpath throughout the morning. I picked up some toasted muesli from here too to take home for my breakfast. Just two minutes walk from here is a little grocery store where you can buy fresh fruit and vegetables like bags of green figs and more staples like yoghurt, pasta, toiletries etc.
One night I came back from a long day carrying my tripod and camera equipment around and I was about to crash into bed when I heard the most enchanting singing wafting down the street and through my shuttered window into my room. In these cases, my curiosity always trumps my exhaustion so I set off to find the source of this magical music. I found myself in a beautiful church during local mass and the whole village seemed to be there singing the most joyous songs in Portuguese, complete with hand movements and big grins on their faces. I didn’t understand the words but the sentiment and the spirit needed no translation and I stood there, humming along and feeling so blessed to be a part of their little community.
If you would like to go somewhere a little romantic with a bit more pampering, try the Santa Teresa Hotel, which is also just around the corner. (That’s what I love about this neighbourhood is that it’s so easy to explore on foot!) Even though I wasn’t a guest, I went during the day to have lunch by their pool to film some time lapses as the view looks all the way down over Rio to the water far in the distance. The staff is friendly, the menu is not traditional at all but the quality is very good. I even treated myself to a romantic dinner for one on a night when I was too tired to cook and had been filming all day in the rain. The restaurant menu is much more adventurous and two of the delicious seafood entrees were enough to fill me.
If you’re looking for a luxury hotel that gives you that classic postcard view of Rio and its beaches, with a rooftop pool that is much more hip and happening, go to Fasano. I also snuck into this place to get some shots from the rooftop and try out the spa. They have a great hairdresser here if you need a blow-dry to help tame your hair in all that Brazilian humidity – and you needn’t be a hotel guest. The hotel was designed by Philippe Starck and its minimalist style and quirky features make it probably my favourite of all the luxury hotels in Rio. I tried the food up by the pool and although it was quite expensive, they use very good quality fresh ingredients.
On the subject of food, I have to say that Brazilian food is quite heavy for me. Locals often served me meat, beans, stews, fried chips, white rice, cheese-filled white bread, tapioca – which was a bit rich and stodgy for my palate. I guess it’s okay when you’re on holiday, but as I’m working for long 16-hour days, I can’t eat all that white starch or the sugar would have my energy levels crashing after only one hour of carrying my tripod around in that heat. I grew up in a very similar humid tropical climate in Australia in a rather health-conscious town where we tend to go more for light salads, quinoa, lentils, raw vegetables and fish in the summer. The local Brazilian favourite of tapioca is sometimes promoted as being a healthy way for people to gain weight given that it’s so high in carbohydrates but not in saturated fats, but gaining weight is certainly not a problem for me when I am pretty much thinking of food 24/7. 😉 However, the fruit in Rio is plentiful, diverse and delicious so I tended to stock up and eat a large breakfast to keep me going for most of the day. The avocados I saw in the supermarket were almost the size of my head and, unlike in some countries where super-sized produce means a compromise on taste, they were creamy and packed with flavour.
If you’ve seen episode 8 of Hooked Up with my Airbnb host Fabio, you’ll probably by dying to know where these awe-inspiring hikes are that he took me on. I can honestly say, it was some of the most incredible hiking I’ve ever experienced. The first day he took me to a little seaside village that was so far removed from the touristy beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana but I must say that he lives quite a fair way from that area of Rio. The neighbourhood is called Barra da Tijuca. It took me about an hour in heavy traffic to arrive there by taxi from Santa Teresa. It’s a bit of a contradiction because this part of my journey was all about the nature but the area where you’ll find all the apartments is incredibly built-up and modern. While I’m not a fan of highways lined with giant shopping malls and supermarkets, what Fabio showed me was pristine beaches, generous welcoming locals, lush forest and little hidden eateries with simple unpretentious food. Beaches like Recreio and Reserva attract surfers, families from the favelas having a BBQ or a picnic, kitesurfers, cyclists and volleyball lovers.
Pedra da Gavea in the Tijuca Forest is the big hike I did with Fabio’s friends that gives you that magnificent view over the whole of Rio de Janeiro at the top (pictured in the first image of this post). The majority of the hike is doable for most fit people but climbing the rocks at the end is probably not for anyone with a fear of heights. I think this experience is so much more fulfilling than being surrounded by tourists all charging up to see Christ the Redeemer, but I do have a low tolerance for tourist crowds. I always feel a lot more spiritually and emotionally connected to a foreign city in places that are silent. Even in the height of summer, we had this magical view pretty much to ourselves. On the way down almost at the end of the hike we heard water and discovered a waterfall that you will want to throw yourself under after all that hiking. It’s a good idea to wear your swimmers. I didn’t and ended up diving under that waterfall fully dressed even though it meant going straight to dinner afterwards soaking wet.
I clearly have so much more to experience in Rio and so this is by no means a definitive guide or the opinion of an expert on the city. But I hope maybe it inspires you a little to seek out something beyond just Sugarloaf and Havaina shoe-shopping.