Having just recently booked flights for my long-awaited return to South America (they say third time’s a charm!) I began taking a trip down memory lane:
Famed for Christ the Redeemer, the Olympics, Copacabana beach and bikini waxes therein, Rio de Janeiro is the city that effortlessly shifts from golden sands to verdant hills, from scorching sun to biblical rain, and from entirely deserted streets to drunken crowds.
But to focus on the natural wonders is to overlook the true essence of Rio. As I learnt, Carioca life is vibrant, musical and exists most purely on the streets.
The labyrinthine cobbles of bohemian Santa Teresa, which I called home, contrast the insanity that consumes the adjacent Lapa district. As crowds gathered beneath the imposing colonial aqueduct, we flocked to drink cheap caipirinhas and dance to impossibly eclectic music. The mysterious array of hanging, dusty bottles in the quaint ‘Casa do Cachaça’ street-side shack seems rather to belong on ‘Diagon Alley’; each fiery flavour warmed us up to hit the streets. On Friday nights, the crowds multiply tenfold. Any car brave enough to tackle these roads becomes trapped amongst the street-partying revellers.
I found a more relaxed buzz watching the waves, downtown at Praça Mauá. Dominated by the spaceship-style building that houses the ‘Museum of Tomorrow’, this spot remedies the eerie silence of the out-of-hours business district. Infused by the continent-wide penchant for sitting outdoors of an evening (which I adopted with aplomb), the plaza boasts unrivalled people watching! Skateboarders threw shapes, live bands accrued impressive audiences and post-modern security guards did laps on segways! Praça Mauá also offers the most spectacular sunset, followed by gazing at the twinkling headlights crossing the impossibly long bridge to Niterói.
Beyond partying and people watching, street markets can be found in most neighbourhoods come Sunday afternoon. Santa Teresa’s market offers a heavy vintage focus; down the hill, neighbouring Gloria’s stalls range from carefully displayed fresh fruits, to pungent fish and flea-market floor piles. For me, street market synaesthesia defines that “holiday feeling.” And if the sights and smells are too overwhelming, an abundance of deep-fried pastels and coxinhas offer some comforting beige!
Of a Sunday, my favourite spot is undeniably Praça Sao Salvador. Artistic stalls, food and booze edge of the square, yet the main focus lies on the central gazebo, crammed with musicians. Oldies, with the full orchestral spectrum of instruments, treat the surrounding crowds to a performance. Once they tire, a samba band takes up the reigns. Locals, young and old, welcomed us gringos to join the carefree fun in the sunshine.
Finally, perhaps most famously, Monday nights play host to the Pedra do Sal street samba extravaganza! Little more than a dead-end street in the middle of nowhere, thanks to its amphitheatre shape, abundance of street art and copious bunting, this party spot floods with people. Crowds come from far and wide to revel in the live samba and, as ever, to sample the creative drinks provided by street vendors.
Day or night, for shopping or dancing, the winding roads are much more than a means of traversing this diverse city. The streets are the thronging veins of Rio de Janeiro.