A flight to Rio made sense. With stormy weather down south, and our plans to travel north up the coast through Bahia to Recife and beyond, it was clear that this country is just too big to get around by road.
I’ll start the Rio story with our visit to Sugarloaf mountain and then to the iconic, art deco statue of Christ the Redeemer – it proved to be an interesting and adventurous day.
That Saturday dawned with low cloud hanging over the city, but the forecast looked good and we headed down first to our local beach. We were staying in Injoy Hostel, Botafogo a friendly place in a great location for restaurants and public transport. We walked along the shore and then up by cable car to Sugarloaf, as the clouds began to clear.
Christ the Redeemer
Visiting such an instantly recognisable, totemic statue whose image has represented Rio, Brazil, South America, the Catholic church and so much more, we were prepared to be disappointed. The mountain was much higher than I imagined, the statue itself was smaller than I anticipated but it’s Art Deco design was striking. And the clouds lifted for a beautiful afternoon.
Of course the view over the city, Sugarloaf peak and the harbour below were spectacular – set in a sparkling azure sea and sky.
With a good few hours left of sunlight, and with a cooling, balmy breeze, we decided to call an Uber and head down to Copacabana Beach to finish off a perfect day…
On our way down from Christ the Redeemer, in an Uber, heading to Copacabana. Suddenly the cab screeched to a halt as two men stepped out on to the cobbled road in front of us. There was a moment of silence, as we tried to work out what was going on. Clearly the driver was spooked as he’d stood on the brakes to stop on the steep hill.
We peered out at the scene ahead and then saw one of the men raise an Uzi machine gun, crouch into a firing position, and aim right at us. The driver tried to reverse back up the street, but the clutch kept slipping on the steep hill, and the car wasn’t moving. The driver shouted ‘get out of the car, get out of the car’ so Anne and I slipped out of the doors, and using the car as a shield, headed back up the street. There was a lot of shouting going on.
The car managed to lurch up the hill, with the clutch screaming – the gunmen hadn’t moved – and we jumped in the car and sped away. I asked the driver ‘Foi um assalto’ via Google translate and he thought a gang were conducting a big drug deal in the area and had sealed off the streets.
All ended well, but it’s the first time I’ve been threatened by a machine gun (600 rounds per minute – I looked it up).
The driver dropped us off in Copacabana and said ‘Rio is very beautiful, but sometimes dangerous’. And of course that’s true. What happened to us could have happened to an organised tour bus, and obviously happens to local people living in the city. With the military deployed on the streets, and shoot outs between them and well armed drug gangs, violence is a real problem in Rio.
But it’s a big city of over six million people and hundreds of thousands of tourists, most of whom are unaffected by this conflict. There are now regular organised tours into some favelas, with the avowed aim of showing the positive community organisation in these poor areas, although this ‘slum tourism’, as in South Africa and India, remains controversial.
As if to emphasise the normal life of Rio, within minutes of our scary moment we were walking along the beach in Copacabana, as people swam, played ‘ foot-volley’ and relaxed with cold beers on a sunny Saturday.
We’d started off our time in Rio with a three hour free walking tour on the Thursday morning. It was very well done, with information about the unique and surprising colonial history and architecture of Rio. There were also some friendly and interesting people on the tour, so we signed up for an entertaining pub crawl in Lapa that evening. We missed breakfast the next day.
The walking tour ended at the Escadaria Selarón, 125 steps covered in different tiles and ceramics over decades by Chilean-born local artist Jorge Selaron. He spent his artistic life working on the steps, at first using reclaimed tiles and then adding contributions from around the world. It is an eclectic and vivid tribute to the people of his adopted city, Rio.
One other area we visited in Rio was Santa Theresa, a mixed neighborhood with some old colonial buildings, either dilapidated or restored as well as poorer areas hanging on to the hill. One incentive for us to visit was the old tram that went from town, across the viaduct in Lapa and up the hill – hard for two ex tram drivers to resist. Our first visit was a wash out with rain and low cloud, but on the Sunday, after promenading on Ipanema beach and visiting the hippie market, we jumped on the tram and rattled through the streets once more.
There is also a project representing the trams in ceramic tiles, which of course we liked.
Perhaps the final highlight of our time in Rio came via a message from a friend in London – two friends were visiting Brazil, and might just still be in Rio. Sure enough, we tracked each other down and spent a lovely evening catching up and swapping tales, a precursor for our return home in October after two years traveling.
Heading North from Rio to Arraial d’Ajuda looked a logistical nightmare. Two flights (with a two hour delay), a taxi from Porto Seguro airport to the harbour, a ferry and then a van/bus to our hostel. Yet it all worked smoothly, despite the language barrier, and we were dropped right outside our hostel, Hostel Arraial d’Ajuda. And what a lovely place, beautiful, artistic shared areas, comfortable rooms and staff that did everything they could to make you welcome.
Arraial d’Ajuda is relaxed, with cobbled streets, markets, bars and restaurants. You get to the beaches down a steep cobbled street and then follow the coast along to your chosen spot. Minibuses ferry you back to the town square at the end of the day for a small fare. Lovely spot; and in the evening there is the music of Bahia on the streets and in the bars and restaurants.
On the advice from our hostel we took a minibus tour to Caraíva – two hours over bumpy cobble and dirt roads would have been twice as long on a local bus. Access to the village, river mouth and beach is across the river, boats constantly ferry people and goods back and forth. There are no roads, and the whole place has a relaxed slightly ‘alternative’ vibe.
It’s around 450km from Arraial d’Ajuda to Itacaré, and of course the journey starts with the bus/ferry/taxi to Porto Seguro. The bus to Itacaré is then another seven or eight hours, (comfortable but ice cold a/c) so we arrived about 8.00pm. Luckily our hostel, Che Lagarto, was a short walk from the bus depot and we were soon checked in and wandering down the pedestrianised street, looking for somewhere to eat. The hostel is in a great location and the people are friendly and helpful with advice and recommendations. It’s known as a surfing destination (we were amazed to see all the young people in the hostel up so early for breakfast!), but there are plenty of beautiful little bays with golden sands.
The highlight of our time in Itacaré was a day out on a boat for some whale watching. It was recommended by the hostel and Amanda, one of the workers there, volunteered to come with us to help with translation. The project is heavily involved in research of humpback whale migration, behavior and distribution along the coast of Brazil and our guide explained how local and global conservation efforts have seen a massive increase in whales migrating down the coast from Antarctica between July and October.
For the first hour, the boat rocked back and forth, but no whales, and unfortunately Amanda was seasick 😯.
And then we started sighting humpbacks.
Before long there were groups of them all around the boat. In all we saw maybe fifty whales. One, bigger than the boat, passed underneath us. It was a wonderful sight.
And then, just as we were about to finish for the day, three humpback whales breached the water and came crashing down nearby. Jaw dropping. I only managed to capture one picture, as it slammed down on to the sea -everyone was mesmerised by this force of nature.
Our guides told us it was the best day of the year. It was a special experience.
From Itacaré, our next stop was Salvador, the old capital of Brazil and the capital of Bahia, with its unique history and culture. But that story will be in our next blog, coming soon.