Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Christ the Redeemer and Sugarloaf in one day

The two most iconic landmarks of Rio de Janeiro are the Christ the Redeemer statue and Sugarloaf Mountain, and on Monday I set out to see them both.

Christ the Redeemer on its own. This is a non-selfie stick trip.
The journey to Christ the Redeemer began just outside the Largo do Mochado Metro station, where I paid R$61 (about $24 Canadian) for a shuttle up Corcovado Mountain, skip-the-lineup admission and a return shuttle. The ride took about 15 minutes, most of it up a steep, winding road. I got out at the Pineiras level and got into another vehicle that took me up for another winding five-minute drive until reaching the parking lot of the 710-metre-tall Corcovado.

It was a short climb up some stairs to the base of the 38-metre tall Christ the Redeemer, which took five years to build and was completed in 1931. It’s listed as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. 

I’d seen the statue from a distance on my way into Rio from the airport the day before and it looked small. Even standing in front of it, amidst a sea of selfie-takers, it wasn’t as large as I had envisioned.

It was still impressive, but not as impressive as the panoramic views offered from all sides of the statue. I could see all of the areas I walked the previous day, and much, much more. It was definitely worth the price. I spent an hour taking in all of the vistas while enjoying the sunshine and fresh air.

After taking the first shuttle down to Paneiras, I spent another half-hour in a former hotel that’s been converted into an interpretive centre that tells the story and emphasizes the importance of the Tijuca Forest, which Corcovado is part of. Tijuca National Park encompasses 3,953 hectares and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I returned back to Largo do Mochado and travelled another two stops on the Metro to Botafogo, where I caught the 513 bus to Urca. There’s a cable car that goes from ground level up to Morro da Urca and another one that takes you to the 396-metre summit of Sugarloaf. The return trip cost is R$60. There’s another way up to Morro da Urca, however, and I opted to use it since it was free and better for me.

Urca Beach
After passing the small but lovely Urca Beach, a trail through Atlantic forest winds its way 900 metres to the 220-metre summit of Morro da Urca. I made it up in just over half the recommended 40-minute time, but I was sweating, puffing and questioning my fitness on a few of the steeper parts. There were supposed to be marmosets (which are an invasive species in Rio) in the forest, but I didn’t see any until I spotted three on the Morro da Urca observation level.

A rogue marmoset.
There were lovely views to be had from that level but, since I was here, I figured I had to pony up the R$40 (about $16 Canadian) for the return cable car ride up to the peak of Sugarloaf and back. But within a minute of buying my ticket, a fog bank rolled in and I couldn’t even see Sugarloaf — even though it was just 735 metres away.

The cable car holds 65 people, can travel at a speed of up to 36 kilometres per hour, and takes three minutes to complete its journey. The views were pretty much non-existent by this point, so that wasn’t money well spent. And by the time I took the cable car down to Morro da Urca, the fog had settled lower and spoiled the sightseeing from there as well. So I apologize for the lack of breathtaking photos.

At least I didn’t spring for a helicopter ride, which ranged in price from R$230 (about $92 Canadian) for five minutes to R$1,860 (about $744 Canadian) for an hour per person.

A view of Sugarloaf from Botafogo Beach after the fog lifted and the sun was starting to go down.
I hiked back down the hill and returned the way I came back to Botafogo. I walked around the neighbourhood and its beach for a while and then continued on to another neighbourhood called Flamengo. I had a burrito on a sidewalk table at a small Mexican restaurant called La Calaco for R$25 (about $10 Canadian). I’ve had better, but it was filling and again kept my daily food spend at $10.

I don't know the purpose of this building in Flamengo, but I liked the architecture and the lighting.
I returned to Discovery Hostel, had three beers and called it a relatively early night at 1:15 a.m.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

A free walking tour of Rio’s most famous beaches

Rio de Janeiro may be best known globally for its beaches, so on my first afternoon in the Brazilian city of more than six million people I enlisted the services of Free Walker Tours to show me around the two most famous ones.

But before hitting Copacabana Beach, we were first taken to one of the oldest houses in the neighbourhood — and its decrepitness was well-suited for this Halloween weekend. It’s no longer occupied and is owned by the government, and it would be nice if it could be refurbished to its former grandeur.

The four-kilometre Copacabana Beach wasn’t particularly crowded for a Sunday afternoon, probably because the skies were somewhat overcast. And it was a far cry from New Year’s Eve, when about 1.5 million people crowd the beach for a bacchanalian celebration and to wish for a better new year.

We continued along to the far south end of the beach and Forte Copacabana. It was built in 1914 and is no longer used for military purposes, but houses the Army Historical Museum. The fort was also used at the starting and finishing point for the road bicycle race, as well as for the triathlon and marathon swimming, during the 2016 Olympics. I didn’t have time to pay the R$6 (about $2.40 Canadian) to go in and look around, so a photo of the entrance was the best I could do.

From there it was on to Ipanema Beach, where the small Dos Hermanos (Two Brothers) mountains dominate the west end. Down below, drinks, food and more are sold on the sand while foot volley (a combination of volleyball and soccer) players demonstrate some impressive athletic skills.

There are several small statues dedicated to people of significance to Rio along both Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, and they’re popular attractions for photo opportunities.

The neighbourhood of Ipanema is one of the most expensive in Rio to live in, and its bars, restaurants, shops and hotels make it a magnet for tourists. Our walk gave us a taste of the neighbourhood, including the large Sunday hippie market, which I passed on, and Garota de Ipanema. The latter is where Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes would sit and drink in the early ‘60s, and they were inspired to write “The Girl From Ipanema” after seeing 17-year-old Helo Pinheiro walk by them every day on her way to the beach. It’s now a high-priced restaurant geared toward tourists.

Our walk concluded at Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, the home of 2016 Olympic rowing events. You wouldn’t want to go in the polluted water, which is connected to the Atlantic Ocean by a thin channel to allow sea water in, but it’s a picturesque spot in Rio’s Zona Sul (South Zone). Fitness buffs walk or jog around it, but our personable guide Clara instead sat us down for a short picnic and let us sample some popular Brazilian snacks.

The 2.5-hour walking tour was free, but participants were invited to tip at the end. Clara was friendly and knowledgeable, and even sang the Portuguese version of “The Girl From Ipanema,” the bossa nova jazz song that’s apparently the second most recorded number ever (after The Beatles’ “Yesterday”) for our 15-person group. Most of us gave her R$50 (about $20 Canadian) for her efforts.

With the picnic snacks acting as my appetizer, I walked around Ipanema and decided to have dinner on the sidewalk patio of Galitos Grill. My R$24 (about $10 Canadian) order of garlic fried chicken on a bed of lettuce was very tasty and plentiful enough that I didn’t need a side dish. A 10 per cent gratuity was automatically added on to the bill, which I found was also the case at my next two stops.

Boring but thirst-quenching lagers are the beer of choice in Rio, and they’re available for a reasonable price in bars, restaurants, stores and street stands. Walking around with a drink in your hand isn't uncommon here. However, I came across a bar called Play Growler that had 11 Brazilian craft beers on tap. It was pricey, which may have been why I was the only customer, but I paid R$10.30 for a half-pint of the very solid Antuerpia Trigo Hefeweizen, which I drank on a sidewalk patio while listening to The Smiths, Jesus and Mary Chain and The Cure emanating from the bar.

A short distance away I discovered Shenanigan’s Irish Pub and Sports Bar and decided to climb up to its second floor location and give it a shot. It was your typical old school-looking pub, and it was showing NFL and NBA games. Most of the small crowd in the bar seemed to be American, and I paid R$18.90 (about $7.50 Canadian) for a pint of Shenanigan’s Weiss. It wasn’t as good as the wheat beer I’d just had, but was enjoyable. It was also one of the cheaper beers available, as a pint of Guinness was going for R$41.90 (about $16.75 Canadian). This place is obviously aimed at tourists.

I got back on the clean and efficient Metro and took it to Gloria, a two-minute walk from Discovery Hostel, where I’m staying for my three nights in Rio. I have a private bedroom and shared bathroom for R$150 (about $60 Canadian) a night. And I can buy a tall can of watery Antarctica Pilsner here for R$6 (about $2.40 Canadian) without a mandatory gratuity added on.

I’d been warned about the potential threats and danger posed by street crime in Rio, but I got through day one without any issues and am feeling more confident (though I’m still being more cautious here than in any other place I’ve visited) about my next two days of exploring what the city has to offer.