Views here come at a price, a visit to each of the mountain attractions costing nearly $50 a pop, but it is worth every cent. Half the fun is the ride to the top. Sugarloaf Mountain involved a two part cable car that takes you from sea level to the summit some 500m above, stopping halfway to take in a closer view of the city. The top affords panoramic views of the city, beaches, mountains and Niteroi, the city across the harbour. Corcovado Mountain, home to the iconic Christ the Redeemer Statue, is further inland and requires jumping on a cog train for a near vertical ride to the top.
Late afternoon is the best time to visit both Sugarloaf and Corcovado Mountains. We visited Sugarloaf in the morning and found the thick smog hovering above really spoilt the view, hindering the appearance of the mountains and city in the distance. By late afternoon the haze clears allowing uninterrupted panoramas.
The only thing the beach was lacking was nice water. On our first day we strolled down to the beach at Copacabana for our first dip in the Brazilian sea. The water was looking pretty seedy, a dark green colour with rubbish floating everywhere. We thought if all the locals were swimming it couldn’t be that bad. Our opinion quickly changed after jumping in too afraid to put our heads under what felt more like gunk than water. We quickly retreated back to the sand very disappointed. We were so excited to be at the beach in Rio and we couldn’t even swim. Ipanema was a much nicer beach, and far cleaner, we understood why it attracts more crowds than its dirty neighbour. Had we more time we would have spent it there. It was so sad to see the water in such a condition. The harbour too is disgusting in an even seedier shade of green. It can’t help when there are clearly no rules in regard to littering, both here and in other countries we have visited, litter is a common and serous problem. People have no problem throwing rubbish on the sand, in the gutter or out the bus window. We do hope Brazil can clean up before the two massive sporting events heading their way put them in the world’s spotlight.
The Olympic Games to be held in Rio in 2016, along with the Football (Soccer) World Cup in 2014 are already making a huge impact here as the city begins to improve its infrastructure and sporting facilities. It’s an enormous task to undertake, and judging first hand, they have a long long way to go – the concrete might still be wet for the opening ceremony.
The favelas are essentially built illegally, but now as they have become so widespread and ingrained within the structure of the city the legality issues are ignored. We decided, as architects interested in Urban Design, that a visit to the favelas would be a rewarding experience. We visited Rocinha Favela on the edge of the city by the beach. Rocinha is the biggest of the 700 Favelas in Rio with a population of around 350,000 people. A staggering number considering the relatively small area of the mountainside it consumes. The disorder and chaos you see from the outside is far from what it is actually like on the inside. The buildings are like boxes stacked randomly upon one another, with tight alleyways forming a never-ending labyrinth twisting in between. Getting lost would be pretty easy should you be brave enough to visit without a guide.
When the word Favela is mentioned most people imagine drug dealers, guns and gangs. Rocinha is quite the opposite and we felt completely safe with our local guide. This peace and tranquillity is only a new occurrence, if you were to have visited five or more years ago, you may not have made it out alive, had you made it inside in the first place. In 2008 the Government began what they termed the “Pacification” of the favelas by a specially formed police department ready to use military force to clear out the drug dealers and gangs. Rocinha was the first to go through pacification and the day the military tanks rolled in the drug dealers fled never to return – they probably set up shop somewhere else. In many situations pacification was rough, with the killing of many innocent people as they pushed out the gangs.
Many people of the community agree they preferred the favelas before the police rolled in. It seems, despite the trouble they caused, the drug dealers were somewhat respected in the community, and contributed significantly to the improvement of the favelas, including building safer laneways and upgrading sanitation and water infrastructure. There is of course going to be those that stand in line with the police, families who have lost members to the rough drug war that was happening quite openly within these walls, or simply those that wanted the drugs and guns out so they can get on with their lives in peace. The organisation of the favela is far more structured than you would imagine. An elected association of people from the community act as representatives when dealing with the government and police, while approving sales of property, construction and developing community projects. Now that the drug gangs have gone the community has to fight hard with the government to seek the improvements they so desperately need. The strong police presence, on virtually every corner to maintain order, is also heavily disliked. The standard of living here is far behind our excessive western standards, despite this, life in the favela seems happy and pleasant and abounding with community spirit and passion.
Check out our photos of Rio de Janeiro here.
Next stop the hillside historical gem, Ouro Preto…