Here we are, our last and final stop in South America: the buzzing and beautiful Rio de Janeiro. It’s a city unlike one I’ve been in before, one of beaches and mountains and forests, high rise hotels and colonials mansions and favelas, volleyball players and body builders. There are fancy hotels lining Copacabana Beach and rough sleepers on the pavements, a city where you can dine at all-you-can-eat sushi restaurants and from bbqs on street corners.
We arrive from a 3am flight from Salvador so are both a bit spacey and our first sight of Rio is one of drizzle through our bleary eyes and the windows of the bus from the airport. We’re too early to check into our hostel, the last of South America, but they’re kind enough to let us have a shower and breakfast, leave our big rucksacks and sort ourselves out. We begin exploring by walking from Gloria, the neighbourhood we’re staying in, to Copacabana – it was a long walk but good to shake out the tiredness. The path takes us along a pedestrian path that runs along the rim of the bay; there are old men out running and young guys using the gym equipment along the waterfront. The day is warm and grey and I’m glad we’re walking by the water where there’s a breeze: ahead of us is the iconic Sugarloaf mountain spiking up out of the water. We watch guys playing beach futvolei, a variation of volleyball, and the crowd is just as interesting as the game. There are heated discussions, a bet seems to be on the go, and catcalling from the sidelines. One player grabs his groin and jiggles it at the heckler, blows him a kiss.
There are teenagers on the subway dressed up in tutus and headdresses and glitter, heading out to party. The long day catches up on us and we head back to the hostel, now lit up with fairy lights and paper lanterns to cook dinner and chat with the other people staying there.
Our first proper day in Rio is a tourist one and we make use of the blue skies to visit the city’s two main landmarks: Christ the Redeemer and the Sugarloaf. We take a bus up and up the mountain where Christ stands overlooking the city and emerge finally at the top, beneath his feet. We round the statue to face him and squint upwards. He’s enormous, creamy white concrete and clean Art Deco lines, his arms spread wide. The views of Rio beneath are incredible, the curved bays, distant islands, a pattern of buildings and water and beach and mountain. We join the other tourists standing at his feet to copy his pose with our arms open wide.
By this point we’re hungry and find a kilo restaurant for lunch. These are really popular in Brazil where you pay for the weight of food you take from a buffet of food; it’s all delicious and a good value way to eat, then share strong short coffees and lemon pie. Around us are families out and elderly parents our eating, spending their Sundays together.
We continue our walk to Urca, a thin scrap of land hugging the base of the Sugarloaf. Once reclaimed land, it’s now a genteel neighbourhood, with beautiful modernist houses and quiet leafy streets. We join the locals for a Sunday afternoon beer sat out on the sea wall looking out over the harbour, then head to the gondola station a short walk away.
Sugarloaf mountain is so named because its shape, a tall narrow rounded peak, is similar to old-fashioned sugar mounds. It’s huge, so much taller and more impressive than I imagined; the cablecar whisks us up to the top where we step out in the early evening light to incredible views back at the city. We can see the famous beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana, the favela slums that stack on top of each other as they creep up the mountainsides. We stay until sunset, watch the sky turn dark and city turn on until it glitters back at us.
The following morning I put my trainers on and join the other runners along the waterfront. There are people working out on the beach, doing chin-ups and flipping tyres and doing timed drills. I push the sweat out of my eyes and run towards the Sugarloaf, imagining the view from up there in the morning, watch a plane curve around the rock and head to the local airport.
Outside our hostel is a little van with a fruit and veg stall set up outside. I buy coriander and and white eggs with huge yellow yolks inside. Moz is applying to uni courses and I chat to one of the hostel girls while I cook.
That afternoon we set off on foot to nearby Lapa, an nearby neighbourhood that feels arty and a bit rundown. We pass by lots of murals and the painter writes our names into his artwork, then we walk up to the famous Escadaria Selarón, a set of steps tiled in bright colours and patterned ceramic.
We pass by the Lapa Arches, a viaduct from the 1700s now in white concrete that look a bit tired, before walking to the city cathedral – one of oddest buildings we’ve seen on this trip. Shaped like a giant Dalek, the cathedral is a huge concrete teepee which, when you step inside, is lit with enormous stained glass panels. Of all the churches we’ve visited (and there have been many in this catholic colonial continent!) it’s oddly this different kind of church that is my favourite; something about the light and the colours and the quiet chanting music makes the hair on the back of my neck prickle.
We hop on an old tram to take the journey over the Lapa Arches to Santa Teresa, a village of steep streets and old mansions, built onto the hillside of the city. There are walled gardens and overgrown trees and peeling old buildings, their glamour a bit faded and now covered in graffiti and street art. From up here you can see over to the favelas and the Sugarloaf.
Back in downtown we visit an art space in an old bank and a new museum on the waterfront where I remember watching the Olympic marathon on tv a few years ago.
People are coming out of work when we walk back, dressed in smart clothes and beginning their evening commute. There are others here who make a living scratching around in the street: the street cleaners, the guys who collect rubbish, the vendors who carry huge crates of chilled drinks up and down the beach all day. I watch one take his cap off and wearily rub his sweaty face with the back of his hand; I wonder where he lives.
Back at the hostel we spent more time with the others staying there: nice friendly people and have a laugh in the kitchen. We head out to find a cheap dinner and eat on a street corner – there’s a metal cart with a charcoal bbq smoking meat kebabs; we perch on plastic stools and share a plate.
Our last full day is rainy – we check out of the hostel and catch the subway to Copacabana, check into our hotel for the night. It’s disappointing that the beach is empty and grey, hardly the iconic postcard we imagined. We while away the afternoon sheltering from the rain, reading and playing games. By evening, however, the rain clouds have rolled away and from the hotel rooftop the evening is beautiful, the lights on the strip bright white and the feeling of the night beginning. We’re given free caipirinhas by the hotel and we raise a glass to an amazing trip.
Around the corner we’ve decided to have one special meal on our last night and are trying a churrascaria – a Brazilian speciality. For £30, you are tempted by a seemingly endless array of meats which come out of the kitchen on skewers carried by the waiters who crave off as little – or as much! – as you like. You accompany this with delicious fresh salads, carving from big wheels of cheese, sushi and oysters. It’s beautiful inside, with a piano player and friendly waiters and we have a great night – it feels like a very special end to an amazing six months.
Next stop: Manchester, Northumberland, London and then I’ll see you in Africa!