29 April, 2010

Beyond Copa

Rio's most famous beaches have a REPUTATION. Many people come to Rio humming Barry Manilow's 'Copacabana' song (actually about Cuba, ironically) or 'The Girl from Ipanema,' and most tourists' visits to the city include a requisite visit to these powerhouses. For good reason -- Copa and Ipanema are absolutely incredible. If, however, you're sick of the city beaches or simply want to experience a new shoreline, here are some worthy options:

Barra da Tijuca: Commonly dubbed 'the Miami of Rio,' this beach, set off by towering highrises, has it all: white-sand beaches, calm blue water, and a relaxed atmosphere. The barrio is being rapidly developed, so enjoy it now, before Ipanema's hoardes head west. To get there, take the S-20 bus (regular fare) running from Centro along the coast.

Recreio: Stay on the bus a little longer, and you'll wind up in Recreio, Barra's rough sibling, with fewer highrises and rougher waves. A huge rock (climbable, for great views of the coast on either side) juts out from the beachfront.

Prainha: This little gem, a kombi ride (or a hitchhike if you're feeling adventurous) away from Recreio, is absolutely stunning. The waves are quite large here, too, so you can play in the ocean, climb and chill on the beach's huge rocks, or spread your towel on the soft sand without interruption from obnoxious beach salesmen. You can also take a walk through the national park (lovely trails, disgusting bathrooms) before catching the easy public transportation home.

Niteroi: Cariocas will tell you that the best thing about neighboring Niteroi is its stunning view of Rio de Janeiro across the water. In truth, however, Niteroi is culturally stimulating, visually enthralling, and only a R$2 ferry ride away from Rio's Praca XV. Though Niteroi is famous primarily for its Oscar Niemeyer-designed other-worldly contemporary art museum, it also boasts an impressive number of astounding beaches. The best (and farthest) is Itacoatiara Beach, reached by taking a no.38 bus from the ferry dock.

When the afternoon begins to lazily transition into evening, head back toward the city, stopping at the sand dune alongside Itaipu Beach to watch the sunset. Niteroi's beaches are safer than Rio's at nighttime, so you can linger a while before catching the bus or ferry back to Rio.

21 April, 2010

Krazy for Kombis

One of the most idiosyncratic (and the most fun) ways to get around Rio is the kombi, named after the model of Volkswagen van whose form it usually takes. Kombis, like busses, drive specific routes around the city; though unlike busses the vans do not have obligatory stops. Instead, you can hail a kombi – much as you would a cab – as it passes and disembark at precisely your desired location. The kombi costs R$2 per person (R$2.50 on weekend nights), regardless of the length of your journey, making it the city’s cheapest form of public transportation.

At first the ride can be daunting: climbing into a huge van and cramming shoulder-to-shoulder with Brazilian strangers as the driver careens down a cobblestone hill (at times with only one hand on the wheel while the other texts) surely sounds scary. But in truth the kombi is not only more comfortable than the bus (you’re almost always guaranteed a seat!), it’s also a really fun way to travel.

In, fact, if traveling from Santa Teresa to Lapa, you may be lucky enough to catch the party kombi. Its driver, Valdesere, has installed not only black lights, but dashboard and drop-down TV screens. Passengers can jam to the blaring Backstreet Boys as Valdesere barrels down the hill at a pace that earns him the affectionate nickname 'speed racer.'

What makes the kombi such an ideal form of transportation (aside from its economical price and convenience) is the feeling of community unique to the big white vans. Almost always, someone in the van will start a conversation – the motorista (driver) or cobrador (money collector) if the kombi is empty, another passenger if it’s full. As passengers climb in, they may ask you to hold on to their groceries or small children or offer you a handful of the chips they’re munching on. If an important futbol game is occurring, the entire van reacts to the radio’s play-by-play. Being part of something so authentically Carioca may make you wish you could take a kombi everywhere.

Have a fun kombi story? Share it in the comments!

20 April, 2010

54 hours of pure Carioca Culture this weekend with the Viradão Carioca Festival

Living in Santa Teresa we are lucky enough to have some of Brazil’s finest music shows nightly on our doorstep in the many samba clubs of Lapa, Rio’s beautiful old samba district at the bottom of the hill between Santa Teresa and Centro. However we (together with the rest of Rio), are going to be absolutely spoilt this weekend with the Viradão Carioca Festival taking place in Rio, bringing us 54 hours of music, dance, theatre and film, all completely for free (or 0800 as the Cariocas say).

This is the second year of the festival whose objective is to unite the city, celebrating the many facets of Carioca Culture and bringing it to the streets, making it accessible for everyone to enjoy. From reading about the event on the official Viradão site, it seems the festival will certainly succeed in its' mission this weekend.

There will be 5 main stages located at strategic points around the city (e.g. Praça XV, Cinelandia, Tijuca , Leme and Rio das Pedras) and hundreds more events in cultural centres, squares, streets and other buildings in the city. Top Brazilian artists such as Marcelo D2, Mart’Nalia, DJ Marlboro and Dudu Nobre will be headlining the line-up and aside from the main music acts, there is also a full program of dance, theatre, film, exhibitions and even a specific childrens program to take in. Santa Teresa will host Cinema events nightly in the atmospheric Parque das Ruinas (open air) and the artsy Cine Santa, as well as music and dance events at the Centro Cultural Laurinda Santos Lobos over the weekend.

So, whether you are a newbie to the Brazilian music and culture scene or a die-hard aficionado, this is really a rare chance to get a crash course in Carioca Culture and see some of Brazil's top artists all in one place (relatively speaking given that a certain amount of stage hopping around town will be required), over the space of a weekend. In other words...this is an event NOT to be missed!

When: 23-25 April 2010

Cost: A few metro tickets to get you around town

Program: www.viradaocarioca.net.br

10 April, 2010

Finding "the Real Favela Experience"

Latest research has shown that 1 in 3 Cariocas live in a favela. It can be argued, therefore, that if you haven't been to a favela during your stay then you can't truly say you have had the full Rio experience. Favela tours are becoming quite popular among visitors to Rio de Janeiro, and several companies have sprung up that offer their services to the city's visitors. When choosing exactly how to go about seeing one of Rio's favelas, it's important to consider carefully the guide. Though an uninvited, unguided venture into a favela is far from advisable, peering out the window of an air-conditioned minibus traveling through the streets as though on safari doesn't exactly provide the honest experience travelers seek. A quality favela tour should be responsible as well as informative, should give back to the community as well as interact with it. This type of tour should provide you with a deepened view of a vibrant, culturally rich and diverse Rio - without exploiting or ogling its residents.

Favela Adventures is run by the charasmatic and compassionate Zezinho - born and raised in Rocinha and arguably one of its most well loved residents. Decorated from head to toe in self-designed tattoos of his beloved favela, he is unforgettable character. His aim is to eradicate the stigmas of the favela, to educate and show guests what a safe, friendly and, above all, enigmatically beautiful community his hometown really is.

Not only is Zezinho the only favela resident operating official tours, he also donates his time and money in local community art projects, including the Julio Otoni project. He is professional, conscientious, and extremely knowledgeable about Rio and Rocinha.

Below former Casa579 staffer Dan shares his experience visiting Rocinha with Favela Adventures.

"Rocinha is the largest of Latin America's many favelas with an ever-swelling population currently estimated at about 300,000. The tour took us a number of places, starting at the samba school hall at the entrance of the favela,we then passed through the markets to grab a snack before heading up to the top of the favela on an exciting moto taxi ride (don't worry, there is also the option of kombi transport for those less confident on the back of motorbikes). From the top of the favela we got views of the city like no other. After photo opportunities, we headed down into the main area of Rocinha to soak in the sights before finding a bar for a drink, there having ample time to ask Zezinho all the questions conjured earlier.

From here, the tour is very flexible. If you would like to meet the friendly locals in bars and shoot some pool, walk more around the town, see the bacos - the intriguing labyrinth of streets that carve routes through the town - or go to the markets you can head to some or all of these places, otherwise, a drink or even a BBQ on the terrace roof of Zezinho, the tour guide´s house, is a great way to relax and see the entirety of the favela.

Clock watching was never an issue (though I'm sure had I other places to be, my time would have been respected) -- if you are enjoying the trip, so is Zezinho. Tours often pleasantly overrun the 3 hour time slot, usually by up to a few hours. We also had the opportunity to go to a Baile Funk Party later in the evening, which stretched into the early hours of the morning and gave us a taste of the modern music scene of the favela. A lot of energy is required for this tour, but rest assured, a BBQ or a big, inexpensive meal at a local restaurant will keep your batteries charged!

The nature of the favela is that it is not controlled by the police, but the ADA - a drug dealing organisation. Although this sounds intimidating, the ADA actually do a lot to keep the peace in Rocinha. There is very minimal crime and I felt very safe and at home when with Zezinho. I did see drug dealers (otherwise known as"The Guys") with guns as well as children from the poorer backgrounds asking for food or money - but this is the nature of the favela. Zezinho explained clearly at the outset the proper favela etiquette; as a result these factors didn't inhibit the great experiences of the trip."

Rio is special because of its people, and if 33% of its people live in favelas, the favela is an important place to know. In experiencing it with a local guide, who encourages interaction with the community, one can truly enrich his or her Rio de Janeiro experience.