Is Rio dangerous?  (originally posted as Brazil – and leaving South America on a high)

Is Rio dangerous? (originally posted as Brazil – and leaving South America on a high)

A birthday to remember:  with waterfalls, idylic beaches and jungle treks

somewhere near Paraty

I am often asked – Is Rio dangerous? – so I thought that I would remind you of my time there.

It was my birthday and at ten in the morning I was travelling in a car with a woman who I had only met half an hour before (Click here to remind yourself how this happened).  Her native language was Portuguese and mine English. I had no idea where I would be spending the night or even where I was going, but over the course of the next two days I saw things that I would never have seen if I had not been with Tathy.

First up, we drove to a beach.  Swathes of white sand shimmered with mirages in the heat and emerald green jungle sprawled down from the mountains behind. The trees crept right up to the sand at the back of the beach while humps of islands, clothed in glossy green trees were dotted around in the horseshoe shaped bay of the bluest sea.

another tropical beach paradise

And there was hardly anybody there. Just a couple of guys digging for shellfish at the water’s edge and a family splashing around in the sea, the dad reading in the shade of their bright red parasol.

We drove inland and in the hills we found crystal clear rivers babbling along beds of copper coloured pebbles and which were criss-crossed with rope and plank bridges and we watched children playing, slippery and glossy as eels in the water, shrieking in their own indigenous language.  We met and chatted to some ladies in a traditional Indian community who were bouncing the most beautiful babies in their arms and we bought some of their handcrafts from them.

Brazil and another (almost) deserted tropical paradise

We had lunch at a restaurant in the jungle and then we trekked to a waterfall and another deserted beach before ending up in the cute little village of Trindade.  Here we found a tiny little hostel for the night and I ended my birthday sat on the sand and looking out to sea with my new friend who I had only met earlier that day.

The following day we went for a hike along the beach from Trindade.  This has to be one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline on the planet with its powder white sands, green jungle and the blue sea, but there was another surprise further along the  beach.  A natural swimming arena had been formed from the most gigantic rocks which had fallen at the water’s edge and which now enclose a seawater pool.  And while people splashed and played, thousands of colourful fish swam around us nibbling legs and toes and children clambered high up onto the rocks and tiny motor boats inched in to collect passengers who didn’t want to walk back along the hot sand.

The natural swimming pool

We hiked inland following a river uphill through the trees, stopping every so often to swim in the pools at the base of the little waterfalls.  We came to a place where the waterfall dropped down into a small hole underneath a huge boulder and splashed out several yards away at the bottom.  Known as ‘the rock that swallows’ we watched as people squeezed into the hole and were swept underneath to be spat out the other side.  I have pushed many boundaries on this trip but this was one which was not going to be attempted.

The ‘rock that swallows’

This was certainly a birthday to remember.  I made a new friend and I saw places that I would never have gone to alone, and then just 48 hours after meeting Tathy she dropped me off at the bus station and I was on the final leg of my adventure.  I was off to Rio de Janeiro for my flight back to the UK.

But first I had a few days in Rio and my journey had almost come full circle.  I checked into my hostel – the Samba Green Hostel which is co-owned by Carlos.  I had met Carlos three months previously in Cartagena (read about our visit to the fort in Cartagena here) when he was taking a well earned holiday and I had promised him that I would stay at his place when I finally made it to Rio.

The little yellow Samba Green hostel in Rio

You can’t fail to like Carlos.  His spirited, friendly and exuberant character is reflected in his hostel.  As usual I checked into the cheapest, largest dormitory and this one had TRIPLE height bunk beds accessed by steep ladders and a mezanine layer with two more double bunks – so five layers of beds!  I was lucky and I bagged the top of one of the triples. It shouldn’t make a difference but I felt like a child again in this fun room.  There is also a female only dorm, a computer room and a tiny little kitchen for guests to use.

triple bunk beds

The hostel had idiot-proof directions from the airport and bus station on its website – even I managed not to get lost for once and it was situated in a leafy suburban street in the Botofogo district.  The main beach of Copacabana was an easy twenty five minute walk away and the main metro station was close too.

Even the toilets were fun with brightly painted doors and large shower cubicles and the staff were all brilliant fun and friendly.

The view from the cable car at Sugar Loaf mountain

A very generous breakfast was included in the price and it was here that I met Winnie and then together we visited Sugar Loaf mountain.  Winnie is Brazilian and spoke really excellent English but it was only after we had bought our tickets for the cable car that we confessed to each other that we were both very scared of heights.  I have got better since cable cars are a relatively common form of public transport in South America but these looked daunting.  In fact you take two separate cars.  The first takes you up a very steep cliff where you change to the other which suspends and dangles over the ocean, as it rises steeply to the plug of rock which is Sugarloaf.

high rises and favelas

But we made it and despite the fog and the wind the views were good.  I never realised quite how the city of Rio wraps itself around the mountains, that the Sugar Loaf rises out of the sea or how far back and in the distance the famous statue of Christ the Redeemer is.

Some of the travellers that I had met in Sao Paulo had also come into Rio and had booked into the Samba Green on my recommendation.  Together some of us went to Copacabana beach – in the rain – and then later when the sun was out and it looked like it was supposed to and one evening, five of us – an English man, a Dutch man, a Danish-Ugandan, a French lady and myself all went along to the Maracana stadium to watch a football match.  That was quite an evening.  The World Cup final had been held here and we watched a local derby between two of the major teams from Rio.  There was a lot of passion and rivalry between the fans with some fierce drumming and massive banners and flags and a heavy police presence.

The Maracana stadium is filling up

The hostel staff took us all off on a pub crawl one evening after plying us with caiparinhas.  It wasn’t so much of a pub crawl as a stop in a club but it was ok – until I did my usual party trick of falling asleep in the toilets and I managed to lose everyone.  I had kept myself more or less safe during my whole solo trip around South America and it looked like things could get dodgy, but as I was wandering up and down the street with all the clubs and bars I bumped into Ben from the hostel and we shared a cab back together.

The Lapa distric of Rio

The Lapa district which is where a lot of the bars are situated has an impressive aquaduct crossing the street and rather bizarrely partygoers meet on the forecourt of a petrol station, smoking and drinking among the petrol pumps.

Is Rio dangerous? Possibly at this meeting place - the petrol station

Is Rio dangerous? Possibly at this meeting place – the petrol station

On my final day three of us decided to get up to the Christ the Redeemer statue.  What an epic attempt because we failed to remember that it was a Sunday AND a national holiday so half the population of Rio was queuing to get up the mountain.  And we did queue.  We took a taxi and then a series of mini buses which shuttled us up the mountain to join more queues.

The iconic Christ the Redemeer statue in the fog

I spoke to some of the marshals who told me that I would have to do the same in reverse to get down again so I had to give up.  The two lads decided that they had also had enough of waiting around so we gave our tickets away to some people in the queue and we returned to the hostel so that I could leave for the airport, when the adorable Carlos took my rucksack off to the bus stop for me on the back of his motorbike

Copacabana beach in the sun

And then, 364 days after I left the UK I was back in a plane, flying first to Madrid and then to Heathrow to visit my friends and my family.

Writing this article has been incredibly hard because it heralds my departure from South America and it marks my final few days on that magnificent, frustrating, drop-dead beautiful, diverse continent.

I lost my heart to the people and the mountains, the jungle, the beaches and the deserts of Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.  I am itching to return.

Thank you South America and to everybody who I met for helping me to rediscover myself and to find the strength to finally believe in myself again.

… be continued!

Staircase at the Samba Green







Brazil – My fifth country in Latin America

Brazil – My fifth country in Latin America

Sao Paulo and a strange coincidence.

Sao Paulo, or Sao Pao as it is affectionately called, scared me just a little bit.

The skyline of Sao Paulo, Brazil

It is the third largest mega-city on the planet depending on which criteria you grade it by.  I was told that it would be brash, business-orientated and dangerous, full of skyscrapers and hard-nosed professionals.  I was told that nobody visits it and I should get in and out as fast as possible.  But I also knew somebody who used to live there and he told me that it has a knack of getting under your skin in a good way too.

I planned to stay just two nights and that was two nights more than I wanted, but in the end I stayed six!

I liked it.  Yes, it was enormous and it had very little culture visible on the surface, but dig deep and it is there.

So, what did I get up to?

Well first up, while my hostel wasn’t anything special; from the outside it just looked like any old house in a suburban street but it was perfect for me.  It was a short walk from a metro station and it had a large courtyard at the front where we all gathered and chatted and drank most evenings and it had large squoosy mats inside for lolling around on.  And there were parrots in the trees in the street.  The Grand Prix was taking place in Sao Paulo the weekend that I arrived and some of the hostel guests were staying in the city for that.  Others were using the hostel as a base for work or interviews and others, like me, were simply travelling.  There were a lot of things that could have been improved about the hostel but, as usual, it was the group dynamics of the guests which made it special.

One afternoon I went along on one of the free walking tours along the Avenida Paulista wondering how on earth anyone could get a walking tour out of a main shopping thoroughfare.  But I learnt all about the history of the city and I was told that when each huge skyscraper was built the developers were obliged to include a ‘cultural centre’ within the building.

Sao Paulo makes skyscrapers an art form

As a result, there are little museums and art galleries dotted about everywhere and a deeply ingrained appreciation for the arts.  The street art, is as is usual in South America, everywhere, of high quality and it’s largely encouraged.  I discovered bang in the centre of the main business district a lovely park – an true oasis of calm from the hubub outside, and I discovered that Sao Pao really does love a good, tall radio mast!  Check out any building here and it will have the most massive, oversized mast that you have ever seen.  I met Nick and Lucy who are travelling together on their motorbike and they have a perfect write-up and photgraph of the ridiculous masts in their report here: Elgrandetour

There is an excellent shiny underground system and I had heard of its reputation in the rush hour.  So when I found myself down in the main station as the peak rush hour descended upon me I have to admit to a bubbling up of a latent agoraphobia.  I held my nerve and my breath and I went with the flow.  The squeeze on the London Tube is NOTHING compared to this and I couldn’t even begin to imagine how I would get onto one of the packed trains from five people deep.  The next train arrived and the lady behind me began to push.  And push and push.   And when I was somehow on she yelled at the man behind her to push her harder!

The metro system at rush hour in Sao Paulo

I survived my metro experience and I went on to visit the bright pink skyscraper near to my hostel which was hosting a very large Salvador Dali exhibition in its groundfloor culture centre.  I also visited the cathedral in the old town centre (as far as Sao Pao has an old centre) and I went along to the MASP museum which is 4 floors of art housed in a large concrete block on stilts on Avenida Paulista.   I also went along to the Museo MAM which is set in a large green park with skyscrapers clamouring around the edge and reminded me of postcard scenes from Central Park in New York.

And along with Giovani from Italy and Ian from the UK I went up to the top of one of the huge buildings which has opened up its upper deck to visitors – although that was a bit of a mission.  We set off on foot, and after an hour and a half of very fast walking we finally found the building in the city centre – just as it was closing.

Faced with three hot and sweaty travellers the lady on the desk luckily took pity on us and she allowed us to join the queue.  So we queued and we queued.  For another hour and a half until it was finally our turn to go up in the elevators.  And then we were only allowed a strict five minutes on the balcony – and hilariously this was actually timed by a lady with a stop-watch who got quite stroppy with us when we wanted to wait just a few seconds more!

I was in my last couple of weeks in South America and I wanted to cram as much in as possible yet I wanted time to slow right down so that I could savour the last few days.

The pretty cathedral in Sao Paulo

So I chilled and I chatted and I went out walking.  I planned to go straight to Rio but at the last minute I jumped on a bus on my own to Paraty.  I jumped on the wrong bus and I eventually arrived quite late at night.  It was 11pm and I didn’t especially like the hostel that I had checked into so I decided that, despite the next day being my birthday, I would move straight on to Rio.

And then I woke up and went for breakfast which was served at the beach bar.  Sitting with my toes in the sand I changed my mind and I had just decided that I would spend my birthday lying on a towel in this most idylic of places, when the Brazilian lady at the next table struck up a conversation with me.

Breakfast on the beach at Paraty, Brazil

She was on holiday and she told me that she planned to take off in her car and visit an indigenous community, find a deserted beach and trek to a secret waterfall – she may or may not return to Paraty that night – she may camp out in her tent or she may find a hostel – and then she asked if I would I like to join her.

I thought for all of fifteen seconds and then I discounted all the rules about strangers and I dashed inside the hostel, stuffed my things back in my rucksack and jumped into her car.  Twenty minutes up the road I asked her – we were both communicating in Spanish which was our second language – I asked her name!!

Follow me on Facebook or Twitter and find out next time what Tathy and I discovered on our road trip

And the coincidence that I mentioned at the top of this post?

I was searching the internet for a photo that depicts the craziness of the Sao Paulo metro system.  My chosen photo turned out to be posted on a Brazilian website and I had actually worked alongside the author when we were both volunteering in Peru!

If you want any information about Brazil and especially Sao Paulo, do check out The Books are on the Table by Andy Martin

Avenida Paulista, Sao Paulo




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