There’s no doubt that Rio’s glory days are behind it. The short story is that in the 60s the capital of Brazil was moved from Rio to a planned city (named Brasilia), and the sudden absence of power and influence led to a decline that, combined with mass migration of rural poor to the urban outskirts (favelas), ended Rio’s days as the exotic holiday destination for Europe’s elite.
The negatives notwithstanding, Rio remains a jaw-dropping place to arrive. The rock formations spanning both the coastline, and densely forested inland, topped with the perennially famous statue “Cristo Redentor” delivers arguably the most amazing urban setting of any city. It truly is “a cidade marvillhosa”.
There’s only a handful of places where you can wander around thinking: “I’m in Rio!”. Well actually, there’s only one. Few cities have real brand recognition, places that are exciting simply in and of themselves; New York, London, Rio are some obvious examples.
We had a nice taste of this when we shared a car from Ilha Grande back to Rio for our final day there, with an English couple who were arriving for the first time. Having spent over a week in Rio already, we weren’t enthused by the skyline shrouded in dreary cloud, but these two got quite excited at what they saw. The could see through the pollution, slums – urban reality – and were captured by the exotic flavors beneath.
It’s disheartening that such a spectacular place can be ground into submission by traffic and congestion. Enormous multi lane highways, often duplicated in parallel, snake alongside Rio’s greatest seaside treasures.
Remarkably though, an extensive and high quality series of cycling infrastructure also skirts the beaches, and connects a number of attractive & tourist friendly places. We spent a great day exploring the extents of the bike paths, despite their proximity to the highways.
I was struck at what a tough climate this place must have in summer; 30 degrees and sunburn was the order of this (mid winter) day. Humidity and extreme heat probably does detract from Rio’s identity as a cycle-friendly city. Although they have just launched a public bike system fittingly named “Samba”. Not available to non-Brazilian credit card holders, of course, much like their infuriating budget air carrier “Gol”.
After a week and a half spent ticking most of the major tourist items (sadly missing out on the helicopter ride) we headed off to nearby Ilha Grande for another taste of tropical island paradise.
The place certainly met the paradise expectation if a little lacking in the tropics this time of year. Despite spending most of the time indoors due to rain, I can confirm that this place is the most beautiful and well preserved inhabited island we’ve visited – and bear in mind we’ve visited 15 of them so far on this trip.
Once of the stranger aspects of Ilha is that prices for food, lodging, activities are lower than on the mainland. There’s just two ferries per day traveling here, so it’s a legitimately remote location, and yet you don’t feel like you’re being gouged for the privilege. Unusual.
In fact it’s the first island we’d really like to return to, owing to its abundance of forests, great beaches, hiking trails, 100% car free environment, attractive small scale development, reasonable prices, etc, etc. Not an easy place to get to from, well, just about anywhere in the world where most of the people reading this live.
And so ended our final stop in the Americas. Brazil is a difficult place to summarize, not least because we experienced such a tiny fraction of it. Having been mostly at the end of our tether in Latin America we weren’t especially looking forward to Brazil, attendant as it is with language barriers and serious crime issues.
In hindsight, though, we’re very glad for the experience. It offered a lot of contrast, great food (by the kilo or all you can eat ;-), beautiful people, fascinating language and culture, magic scenery and the exciting bustle of a country on a mission. I wonder how different it will look next time we go.
Footnote: Turns out in Portuguese, the letter “r” has pronunciation equivalent to the letter “h” in English. Imagine discovering the correct pronunciation of such well known nouns as “Hio de Janeiro”, and the football player “Honaldo”.